Improving outcomes for children with leukaemia

Wed, 17 Jun 2020 10:11:00 BST

The sixth annual Making a Difference Awards took place last month. They highlighted the extensive range of social responsibility activities that our staff, students and external partners are involved in. A record number of 180 individuals and teams submitted entries, with judges recognising 17 winners, 28 highly commended and two special recognition awards.

8,000 people around the world engaged in our first online awards ceremony on Facebook Live which was presented by Chancellor Lemn Sissay. Details of all winners and highly commended awardees can be found on the social responsibility website, with short films about their winning projects on the social responsibility YouTube channel.

As always, the awards were an inspiring and humbling event showcasing the incredible work that our University community does to make a difference. We are continuing to celebrate and acknowledge our winners’ projects by featuring them in a series of articles highlighting the best of social responsibility at the University.

Improving outcomes for children with leukaemia

Professor Vaskar Saha’s research at the University has made a significant impact nationally and internationally, on improving the outcome for children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). His work was recognised in the outstanding contribution to society through research category in this year’s Making a Difference Awards. Survival rates of children with ALL in the west have risen from 60% to 90% and Vaskar’s research has helped the UK to have one of the highest rates of survival anywhere in the world.

However, in countries with limited resources ALL continues to be a fatal disease. Globally, the survival rate for children with ALL is only around 40% and with 80% of the world’s children living in low-resource countries, ALL severely impacts thousands of families across the globe. This disparity was the original inspiration for Vaskar’s work in India:

“In these countries ALL remains a fatal disease. Yet ALL is curable. For me, that a child in 2019 can still die of a disease that is curable is unpalatable.”

“At its simplest, 15,000 Indian children are diagnosed annually and only 9,000 of these will survive. So even if we can improve outcomes in India by 10%, then an additional 1,500 children a year will grow up to lead normal lives.”

For poor families living in rural areas of India, a cancer diagnosis means that entire families are forced to leave their jobs and homes to travel cross-country to find a cure for their child. While many centres subsidise treatment, non-treatment costs such as travel and accommodation can be crippling. Many families incur heavy debts and are reduced to poverty. In many cases, it takes the resources of a whole village to help a family dealing with cancer.

The Tata family recognised this and set up a hospital, Tata Medical Center (TMC), to save families having to endure separation and months or years of poverty and distress caused by a loss of income and relocation. Before TMC, patients from Kolkata would have to travel up to three days to get to the cancer hospital in Mumbai. TMC subsidises treatment through the help of a number of charities. In partnership with St Jude India, it provides safe, secure and free accommodation for families whose children are being treated.

Professor Vaskar Saha has helped to increase survival rates among children with ALL by 10% in the UK and in India, by linking five major paediatric centres, he has created a national hub of cancer centres which work together to agree standards of care based on the principles of the NHS. These in turn have linked up with their local hospitals to create a modernised health care system with standardisation in treatment and care which is yielding lifesaving results.

They have also implemented agreed, uniform standards of care and treatment across all of the treatment centres and formed the Indian Childhood Collaborative Leukaemia (ICiCLe) group. Since its inception, the ICiCLe group has treated over 2,500 ALL patients, halving deaths from treatment, increasing survival rates from 60% to 75% and benefitting over 4,000 families.

We caught up with Vaskar about the awards, who said: “I am delighted to receive this award as it recognises the work that reflects really, the efforts of many. I am only a catalyst. This success is due to many people working together to achieve better outcomes for our patients, wherever they are. At the end of the day wherever I am, Manchester or Kolkata, I’m a paediatrician and I do this because it’s my vocation and passion to look after sick children and their families.”

Find out more about Vaskar’s work in our short film here.