When Sydney woman Maria Rossi learned her baby girl had blood cancer, the only thing she wanted to hear was high percentage odds that little Mia would pull through.
“We kept asking, what are her chances? And you just want to hear that number,” she remembered on Tuesday.
“Any number that is higher gives you more hope.”
Now, thanks to an Australian-led medical trial published on Tuesday, more families will be presented with odds that give them belief.
As recently as the 1990s, as few as a third of children with high-risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) recovered from the illness.
But research initiated at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, and detailed in the journal Leukaemia on Tuesday, has boosted the survival rate for those children to 75 per cent.
Scientists at the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia (CCIA) developed a way to test for the slightest trace of diseased cells in the bone marrow of children with ALL – including among patients who appeared to be responding well to treatment – to identify possible relapses months or years in advance.
Children at a high risk of relapsing were then treated with an intensive chemotherapy protocol.
Glenn Marshall, director of the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, said 1000 children had been involved in the research in Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
“Approximately 30 to 40 children in those countries would not be alive today if we didn’t have our trial, because the cure rate for those high-risk patients compared to the 90s has doubled,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Deputy CCIA director Murray Norris said doctors had previously relied on slides under a microscope to determine whether cancer was in remission.
“You’re lucky if you can pick up one leukaemia cell amongst 20 or 50 normal cells,” he said.
“What we developed was a molecular genetic test, essentially it was based on taking a DNA fingerprint of the child’s leukaemia.”
The Minimal Residual Disease testing could pick out the equivalent of one leukaemia cell from up to a million normal cells, he said.
Maria Rossi credits the research with saving her daughter’s life.
Today, Mia Yule needs to visit a hospital for check-ups only every four weeks.
The rest of the month, the bouncy six-year-old is busy going to school, playing soccer, and even doing kung-fu.
“I really hope Dr Marshall makes other kids better,” Mia told reporters.
Her mum said she felt “blessed”.
“We went through treatment with other families who weren’t so lucky,” she said.
“I think it was one in three of them who didn’t make it, so we feel very excited by the news today that they’re continuing to make progress to give every child the chance to live a life.”