BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Of all the federal funding for cancer research, childhood cancers get only four percent, according to the St. Baldrick's Foundation. Doctors depend on St. Baldrick's and other non-profits to advance research that's making a difference for South Louisiana patients.
18-year-old Bradley Hamilton has a lot to celebrate. He's beginning his senior year of high school at E.D. White in Thibodaux, and his acute lymphoblastic leukemia is in remission. He only has a few more months of weekly chemotherapy.
"This particular type, it's a long treatment," he said at a recent check-up. "But it slowly gets better, and it's gotten a lot better in the past several months."
Dr. Catherine Harris Boston has been treating Hamilton at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Our Lady of the Lake. She said his encouraging progress is thanks in part to new therapies found through research.
"A teenager like Bradley, a long time ago they would not do as well as younger children, but we've intensified therapy for those kids, and they do really well now," Boston explained. "But we know that a higher age of a child is a risk factor, usually greater than ten."
What doctors don't know is why kids of the same age with the same disease and same treatment have different outcomes. Boston believes the differences have to do with their immune systems. She's hoping to prove that boosting the immune system will boost the prognosis.
"What I've found out is that the immune system, the white blood cell counts and especially the lymphocyte counts are higher in younger children than they are in older children, and so that may be part of the reason why older children traditionally didn't do as well," Boston said. "So potentially if we can identify the patients who are at risk, and we can stimulate those immune cells with drugs or supplements or other things – even infusions of other people's healthy immune cells – then we might be able to stop those differences."
Boston is now looking at which immune cells to target and was awarded a $97,500 grant from St. Baldrick's for her third year of research. She's using data from Hamilton and other St. Jude patients in Memphis. It's a unique opportunity for local patients to make a difference.
"What you do is going to help children later on who are diagnosed," Hamilton said. "The way you recover from this is going to help them treat kids later on, so you're part of the solution."
The St. Baldrick's Foundation will host their signature "Brave the Shave" event on Tuesday, September 1 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Lava Cantina in Perkins Rowe. Local cancer patients will be on hand to shave the heads of willing participants (or just give a little trim). The money raised will fund childhood cancer research. The event is open to the public, and participation is not required.