We can fight childhood cancers

Paediatric cancers are a tragedy, but the BECA committee recommendations on strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer can make a difference, believes Ewa Kopacz
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By Ewa Kopacz

Ewa Kopacz (PL, EPP) is a member of Parliaments Special Committee on Beating Cancer

15 Feb 2022

Cancer in an adult is a disaster, but cancer in a child is a tragedy. It is also traumatic, not simply for the child but also for her family. According to the European Commission, 1.3 million people in the EU lost their lives to cancer in 2020. At least 2000 of these deaths were young people.

In my country, Poland, which has a population of 38 million, there are between 1100 and 1200 new diagnoses of malignant tumours every year, amounting to as many as one-sixth of all the cases in the European Union.

In this therapy area, clinical and diagnostic progress is usually made within the framework of international scientific consortia and working groups. This is because no country in Europe has a large enough number of paediatric oncology patients at its disposal that it can carry out research on an adequate scale on its own and, as a result, develop the most effective methods for changing therapeutic decisions.

We can certainly celebrate the fact that, thanks to international cooperation and innovative methods, outcomes for cancer treatment in children are steadily improving and are significantly higher than in the adult population. However, mortality remains at around 20 to 30 per cent.

One of the reasons for therapeutic failure is late diagnosis of the disease, which is made more difficult by symptoms that differ from those in adults. It is also worrying that, after accidents, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the paediatric population.

“We cannot agree to a situation where defective legislation or excessive bureaucracy hampers scientific research that could save lives and improve health, particularly among children”

As a doctor, I believe that every procedure in clinical practice should be standardised. Systems of recommendations and standardised procedures are intended to organise existing knowledge and determine the optimum clinical management of patients, making it possible to maximise therapeutic opportunities and outcomes.

Making this a reality requires close cooperation between paediatric oncology centres in Europe and an exchange of experience and key data on the diagnostic and therapeutic programmes used. We need ever-closer international cooperation, such as the establishment of European Working Groups to deal with specific tasks in such fields as diagnosis and treatment, transplantation and the treatment of late-stage complications.

Talking to paediatric oncologists not so long ago, I heard that all patients diagnosed with an oncological pathology were treated according to the same protocol, developed at national level. Today, treatment is becoming increasingly individualised. The exchange of information between teams and research centres will make it possible to significantly increase successful treatment outcomes by adapting treatment methods individually to each patient.

At the same time, thanks to this exchange of data, it may be possible to potentially modify therapies based on responses to the applied treatment among a larger group of patients from different countries. International cooperation when conducting clinical trials will therefore allow the implementation of innovative, more effective therapies, particularly for those patients for whom current treatments can no longer offer any solution.

Therefore, it is with considerable satisfaction that I have accepted the report of the BECA Committee on strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer.

The report makes a number of important provisions, including recommending the creation of a European network of certified reference cancer centres, joint European procurement of medicines - critical to cancer treatment - removal of obstacles to accessing insurance and credit for people who have overcome cancer, investment in European health infrastructure through cohesion funds or European information and education campaigns to prevent cancer.

Perhaps more importantly, the Report also includes measures relating to children and young teenagers with cancer.

"1.3 million people in the EU lost their lives to cancer in 2020. At least 2000 of these deaths were young people"

We have managed to include our bespoke proposals for encouraging and supporting the development of medicines for paediatric cancers in the compromise, and for facilitating access to cross-border clinical trials. I draw particular attention here to compromise 92 – the swift and comprehensive application of European Union Regulation No 536/2014 of 16 April 2014 on clinical trials on medicinal products for human use.

Application of the Regulation would aid the conduct of large-scale clinical trials at European level in a harmonised, efficient and coordinated manner, which in turn would improve research into cancer medicines and improve the quality of life of cancer patients and their families. Implemented consistently in all Member States, the Regulation would rationalise procedures relating to clinical trials.

It is also crucial to reduce the bureaucracy surrounding clinical trials. The law should, above all, serve patients, and we cannot agree to a situation where defective legislation or excessive bureaucracy hampers scientific research that could save lives and improve health, particularly among children.

The guiding principle of the actions of the EU Institutions, as well as those of the Member States, should be – within the framework of cooperation in the field of paediatric oncology – “no child in Europe should die of cancer”.

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