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Pioneering research in memory of Thomas Broughton

03 November 2017
A lovable toddler who died from cancer despite two years of extensive chemotherapy treatment has inspired doctors at Addenbrooke’s to launch pioneering work to save patients from the painful side effects of some treatments.

Paediatric oncologists Dr Boo Messahel and Dr Johann Visser started their research in memory of four-year-old Thomas Broughton, from Bury St Edmunds, who died in November 2015 after a tumour in his spinal cord spread to his brain.

Dr Boo Messahel who is leading genetic research into chemotherapy treatmentsThe initiative is possible thanks to support from the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust and the determination of Thomas’ parents Nat and Nicky who have set up Thomas’ Fund to bring in added cash.

With an initial £3000 boost, the doctors are leading a study that is exploring the relationship between genetic variations in children and adverse reactions to a chemotherapy drug that is the backbone of cancer treatment.  

Up to a quarter of children suffer side effects* when treated with Vincristine which can often be debilitating and cause clinicians to switch to alternative treatments. 
The trial involves taking a blood sample from a patient being treated on Vincristine and a genetic test to see what common genetic variations are at play in those who suffer side effects. 

So far 28 children are taking part but ultimately more than 100 are expected to be part of the trial and it could widen to other hospitals. Early signs are encouraging, say the medics.

Dr Messahel added: “It was while treating Thomas that I thought that if we could do a simple genetic test to determine who is going to have an adverse reaction to Vincristine we would save children like Thomas a lot of suffering. 

“Doctors have been using Vincristine for 40 years now but our understanding of how the drug works on different patients hasn’t improved. “Our understanding of genetics has improved markedly in the last ten years and, if we can determine genes that cause the adverse reaction, we can speed up administering the most effective treatment.

“It’s all about the move to more personalised medicine which is the future of healthcare.”

Nicky Broughton said: “Thomas was diagnosed with a tumour in 2013 and during two years of treatment he had 77 doses of chemotherapy and 18 anaesthetics, nine of which were for surgery, as the doctors tried to gain control of the tumour.

Thomas Broughton who inspired the research“He suffered from pain, peripheral neuropathy [damage to nerves in the extremities, such as the hands, feet and arms], kidney damage, constipation, diarrhoea, sickness and a weakened immune system requiring number hospital admissions for antibiotics.

“That is why we are helping fund this research as the use of genetics will hopefully help doctors find the most effective treatment more quickly which will improve outcomes and reduce painful side effects.”

Howard Martin, lead scientist in research and development at Cambridge University Hospitals, is encouraged by the early signs from the trial.
“For a long time, genetics has been seen as a way of diagnosing rare diseases in families, but over the past few years it’s also become a powerful tool for medical treatment,” he said.  

“Our understanding of how genetics can predict an individual’s response to treatment means we can quickly find the most effective treatment that’s personalised for the patient. 

“Using this approach to research a personalised chemotherapy treatment will hopefully help us avoid some of the adverse side effects that might occur in these children.”  

Anyone who wants to help fund this and other pioneering medical research into children’s health should contact Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust on 01223 217757 or via www.act4addenbrookes.org.uk.