During the 1970s our knowledge of genes and DNA greatly increased and scientists began to understand better how leukaemia develops and the way in which treatments could be improved.
At this point around half of children being treated for leukaemia entered a sustained remission, though most of these were not cured and would later relapse. The other half still died quickly.
Understanding leukaemia in children
In this decade we started to invest in world-class research into the causes of leukaemia, pioneered by leading scientists such as Professor Mel Greaves, who would later go on to identify cancer stem cells in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).
Research such as this led to the discovery that childhood leukaemia is not one distinct disease but actually consists of many types, including ALL and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) as well as many subtypes of these diseases.
This paved the way for the development of new diagnostic tools, such as flow cytometry, which can better match medication to each child’s type of leukaemia.
Refining treatments through clinical trials
Probably the most crucial development that has led to continually improving treatments has been the introduction of the national UKALL trials, which started in the mid-1970s and are open to all children diagnosed with ALL in the UK.
Clinical trials in both ALL and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) have enabled doctors to investigate different combinations of treatment as well as testing different intensities of treatment according to the needs of each child.
Each subsequent clinical trial, which continue to run today, has resulted in a gradual improvement in the protocol for children being treated for ALL, saving more lives each time.
In fact, very few new drugs have been introduced to the treatment of childhood ALL since the mid-1970s, but clinical trials have been fundamental in managing side effects, preventing relapse and treatment related fatalities and fundamentally increasing survival rates.