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YOUR HEALTH: Using “killer cells” to attack a deadly cancer in kids

Natural killer T-cells may be a key to treating children with neuroblastoma, the most fatal cancer for young American children.

WACO, Texas – Neuroblastoma accounts for six percent of all cancers in children and is deadly in kids under five.  Many times, the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes before parents even notice a lump.

After two years of fighting neuroblastoma, Cashel can't get enough of everything this playground has to offer.

"He had chemo," explained his mother, Alita Conoley-Wurzbach.

"He had stem cell transplant too which is high-dose chemo, too. They rescue it with their own stem cells."

Plus, 12 rounds of radiation and immunotherapy.

The cancer was first discovered as a lump on his neck but the primary tumor was a grapefruit-sized one on his stomach.

"He had his primary tumor removed," said Alita.   "That was a 14-hour surgery here at Texas Children's."

But on a recent trip, it was Cashel who donated his own blood cells to boost the research.

Pediatric oncologist Dr. Andras Heczey is looking at genetically engineering natural killer T-cells which help fight neuroblastoma.

"What if we genetically engineer T-cells to specifically attack the tumor cells, as well."

The clinical trial is evaluating a therapy called CMD-501, in which the patient's natural killer T-cells are genetically modified in the lab to better attach to tumors.

NEW TECHNOLOGY:    Researchers are developing a new strategy to treat patients with neuroblastoma.   The Geno Kit 2 study is focusing on natural killer T cells or NKT cells for short.   These are a small subset of cells in the blood, which carry some anti tumor properties.   Researchers discovered they can traffic specifically to Neuroblastoma sites, attacking the white blood cells inside the tumor cell called tumor associated macrophages or TAMs.   These TAMs support the growth of the neuroblastoma, creating a more nourishing environment for it to thrive.   Therefore, NKT cells indirectly can alter the neuroblastoma ability to grow.   The team is working to genetically engineer NKT cells to specifically attack the tumor cells.

But for now, Cashel and his mom have a feeling of empowerment.

"Because there is so little control you have over as a parent with a sick child," said his mom Alita.

A little guy who is now healthy and helping others beat this tough disease.

Neuroblastoma is found in and around the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys.   It can also develop in other areas of the abdomen, neck and near the spine, and in the chest.

Because of that, signs and symptoms vary depending on which part of the body is affected.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.