The eighth floor of the La Paz maternal and child hospital in Madrid has a new laboratory and ten modern rooms after 18 months of work. The space, dotted with constellations painted on the walls, is the new CRIS Unit for Research and Advanced Therapies of Childhood Cancer, a leading department that combines on-site investigation of this disease and state-of-the-art medical assistance for the rarest cases.
The charity CRIS Foundation Against Cancer has financed the construction of the unit with one million euros and will support the work of the new interdisciplinary team responsible for carrying out clinical trials and personalized therapies at the hospital with one and a half million more. "The research we do at the bedside is what will allow us to cure cancer in children," said Dr. Antonio Pérez, head of pediatric hemato-oncology service and director of the new unit, during the opening ceremony.
The Councilor for Health of the Community of Madrid Enrique Escudero, who is also a pediatrician, has recalled that there are 1,800 cases of childhood cancer a year in Spain, of which between 20% and 25% are fatal deficiencies of conventional therapies. Survival has not gone beyond those figures in 30 years. "We appeal to the whole society, because they are long-term projects and we must continue financing," he says. Lola Manterola, cancer patient and vice president of CRIS Against Cancer, an organization that raises funds from individuals and companies.
Unlike adult cancers, which are linked to aging and usually appear in the epithelia, childhood tumors are associated with growth and affect, above all, structural tissues such as bones or muscles. The Unit plans to attend between 50 and 100 children and adolescents of high complexity each year, through the development of latest-generation cell therapies. In these, immune cells are normally genetically engineered and subsequently delivered to patients to destroy tumors.
"The objective is the patients who are hospitalized and who have the problem now, but the knowledge that is going to be generated will benefit all the children who are currently healthy but who will become cancer in the coming years," explains Pérez. "[Con] those children of the future, we will know what treatment we can optimize. We are also at the moment in which we begin to find out the genetic and epidemiological bases of cancer in children. We can identify at very early stages children who are currently healthy but who are going to do cancer during their pediatric age. That all means a change of absolute inflection, "he says.
"A little piece of normality"
The Unit completes the existing facilities of the Hemato-Oncology Service, which had 16 rooms, four of them for bone marrow transplantation. The new plant has four new isolation rooms for the same purpose, and an area dedicated to clinical trials. "There is also a room for teenagers so they can share a little, which is very positive for them," says Consuelo, the mother of a patient. Her son Héctor, who is 12 years old, has spent half her life with cancer. In June 2017 he underwent a bone marrow transplant, and since then he has spent more time admitted than at home.
"I have some friends here in the hospital and my friends come to see me when they can," says the kid from the stretcher, momentarily turning away from his video game console. For her mother, the design of the new facilities is important so that "they can spend some time together at their own pace, talking about their things, working as children, fighting, or whatever". "It gives you a little piece of normality," he reflects.
I have some friends here in the hospital and my friends come to see me when they can
The team that surrounds the patients and their families is formed by doctors, researchers, geneticists, bioinformatics, immunologists, surgeons, nursing staff and laboratory technicians, who are in charge of carrying out the treatments and research together. In addition to designing new clinical trials, the center's staff is active in the previous scientific phase: the search for new molecular, genetic and immunological targets in cancer-indicating stem cells, in which they metastasize and in which they give rise to relapses .
The department inaugurated this morning is part of the group of four specialized units in oncology of adolescents that the Community of Madrid has launched in public hospitals. The other three are in the hospital 12 de Octubre, El Niño Jesús and Gregorio Marañón. In addition, the Community of Madrid plans to implement the Regional Strategy for Advanced Therapies, which aims to ensure equitable access to new treatments for patients who need them.