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Childhood Cancer Research Highlights

Cancer doesn’t fight fair at any age, but perhaps no cancer is more emotionally devastating than those that occur in children. The fear and uncertainty these young patients and their families face can hardly be measured, but the Society is deeply committed to finding new answers that will benefit every child with cancer and their family.

From ACS Researchers: New Report on Childhood Cancer Statistics

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand how to prevent, detect, and treat cancer, including childhood cancer.

The Society’s Surveillance and Health Services Research Program in 2014 produced an important and detailed report summarizing the progress made and challenges ahead in fighting childhood and adolescent cancers. Key findings include:

  • In 2014, an estimated 15,780 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and 1960 deaths will occur among children and adolescents aged birth to 19 years.
  • Approximately 1 in 285 children will be diagnosed with cancer before age 20.
  • Today, about 1 in 530 young adults between the ages of 20 and 39 is a childhood cancer survivor.

The report points out that although advances in the treatment of childhood cancer have saved many lives over recent decades, there has been less progress made in understanding the causes and prevention of childhood and adolescent cancers. And while there have been substantial improvements in survival for many cancers of childhood, others have seen little progress. In addition, the report confirms that while advances in survival for many types of malignancies have resulted from improvements in surgical techniques, delivery of radiation therapy, and use of chemotherapy, children treated for many cancers have a high risk of immediate and long-term health issues that interfere significantly with quality of life for these children and their families. A companion commentary to the report describes in detail some of these challenges.

Read the full report here and companion commentary here, and see below for highlights of research the Society is funding to address pediatric and adolescent cancers.


ACS-Funded Research and Training Grants in Pediatric & Adolescent Cancer*

The Society also supports an Extramural Grants program that funds individual investigators engaged in cancer research or training at medical schools, universities, research institutes and hospitals throughout the U.S. Following rigorous and independent peer review, the most innovative research projects are selected for support.

Total ACS grants currently in effect addressing childhood cancer: 43
Total ACS grant funding currently committed to childhood cancer: $22,471,000

Spotlight on grantees: The following are some of the top scientists funded by the American Cancer Society who are working to find the answers that will save more lives from pediatric cancer.


Pat BrownPatrick Brown, MD, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is working to identify the genetic change in one type of childhood leukemia that continues to have a very low cure rate. Those whose leukemia cells have a mutation in a specific gene called MLL would benefit from improved therapy.



Kevin Shannon in labKevin Shannon, MD, at the University of California at San Francisco, is exploring genetic changes in cells that occur in leukemia patients, re-creating these genetic reactions in the lab to seek out new targeted therapies.





Brain cancer

test tubes with writing Maciej Lesniak, MD, at the University of Chicago (Illinois), is working to re-engineer a virus that causes the common cold, empowering it to attack the cells within fast-growing brain tumors.




Molly Meffert Mollie Meffert, MD, PhD, at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, is studying a signaling pathway involved in brain cancer to explore how focused treatments can destroy tumor cells while minimizing negative effects on brain function.





Other cancers

dropper and beakerRene L. Galindo, MD, PhD, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas is studying the cause of the muscle-type tumor rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive tumor that strikes children. By correcting the defective behavior of the genes identified in a model system, cells lose their tumor behavior. The goal is to inform the development of a new drug treatment for this tumor.


Rani George Rani E. George, MD, PhD, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston is exploring a genetic abnormality in the cells of neuroblastoma associated with resistance to treatment with crizotinib. The ultimate goal of this study is to develop treatment strategies for this pediatric tumor.



close up of test tubesSteve Lessnick, MD, PhD, at the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, is exploring specific cell processes involved in Ewing’s sarcoma -- a disease that is most common in adolescents -- seeking better treatments for this disease.




Palliative care and quality of life

Treating the pain, symptoms, and distress of cancer experienced by children and their families is as important as treating the disease itself. Because two-thirds of children with pediatric cancers suffer long term effects from treatment including loss of hearing and sight, heart disease, secondary cancers, learning disabilities and more, the Society is also directing much needed grant support to research focused on managing these quality of life issues through provision of palliative care alongside oncology treatment through an innovative partnership with the National Palliative Care Research Center (NPCRC.org) initiated in 2007. Pediatric palliative care researcher currently funded by the Society includes:

Michelle Fortier Michelle Fortier, PhD, at the University of California, Irvine, is exploring using mobile technology to collect a diary of pain and symptoms that will address the significant gap in knowledge of pain and symptoms management of children’s cancer.



Anne Kazak Anne E. Kazak, PhD, ABPP at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children of The Nemours Foundation in Wilmington, Delaware is working to assure that all families are assessed and provided with access to psychosocial care appropriate to their needs. Screening for psychosocial risk at diagnosis does not usually occur in pediatric cancer as easy-to-use assessment approaches are not available. This goal of this study is to reduce the short- and long-term psychosocial burden of cancer for all members of the family, improve quality of life, and reduce the overall societal impact of cancer by early identification (and subsequent treatment) of problems that may otherwise impede care and wellbeing.

Also of note, in 2013, the Society honored one of its former research grantees, Dana Farber pediatric oncologist Dr. Joanne Wolfe, with its American Cancer Society Pathfinder in Palliative Care Award.

*Information current as of March 1, 2015.

Other Ways ACS Fights Childhood Cancer

In addition to conducting and funding childhood cancer research, the American Cancer Society helps fight childhood cancer through education, support services, and advocacy. Explore how the Society helps:

  • The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the Society, advocates for childhood cancer through public policy including pushing for increased federal funding for research, legislation to promote palliative care, and the inclusion of patient protection provisions in the Affordable Care Act that are vitally important in the context of childhood cancer and survivorship. Learn more>
  • The American Cancer Society publishes many books that address the needs of children who have been diagnosed with cancer or are dealing with cancer in someone they love. Learn more>
  • If your child has just been diagnosed with cancer, is going through treatment, or is trying to stay well after treatment, the Cancer in Children section of the Society’s website will help you find the answers you need. Learn more>