Saturday 23 March 2019

'It was pretty much a death sentence at the time' - top cancer specialist driven to find cure after death of young cousin

Professor Owen Smith. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson.
Professor Owen Smith. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson.
Ian Begley

Ian Begley

A top cancer specialist has told how the death of a nine-year-old cousin in 1966 fuelled his lifelong ambition to find a cure for childhood leukaemia.

Crumlin Children’s Hospital haematologist Professor Owen Smith was just seven years old at the time of his cousin’s death.

Roll forward 53 years and Prof Smith has treated thousands of young cancer patients, and has helped increase the survival rate of childhood leukaemia to more than 90pc.

“Even though I was very young at the time, I remember my cousin, Derek, being admitted to Temple Street Children’s Hospital,” Prof Smith (60) told Independent.ie.

“To my family’s great sadness, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, which was pretty much a death sentence at the time.

“He was placed in a back room for three weeks until he died. Nothing could be done for him besides palliative care and attempts to keep him as comfortable as possible.”

Prof Smith said Derek’s diagnosis, his death and the negative impact it had on his family, never left him.

“It was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to become a blood doctor and working in leukaemia was always on my horizon.

“That’s why I dedicated my life to curing children who found themselves in similar circumstances.”

More than 200 children in Ireland are diagnosed with cancer each year.

Of these, one third have acute leukaemia.

The other two most common types are brain tumours and neuroblastoma.

“We’re now curing more than 90pc of children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia,” said Prof Smith, who is looking at ways to find treatments and cures for the other 10pc.

However, Prof Smith said current treatment comes at a price, and that price is usually long-term toxicities for the children.

He said that he hoped new treatments will soon be available to reduce the long-term toxicity effects that children suffer on the road to recovery.

He said one of the greatest moments in his career was bumping into a woman he treated years before.

“I was stopped in Grafton Street by a young lady pushing a pram. She said, ‘Professor Smith, do you remember me? I was one of your patients with leukaemia’.

“Now she has her own children. It was the most uplifting and incredible moment.

“I was so privileged to be in that position.

“I also remember the children who didn’t make it, who died of refractory or relapsed disease.

“That’s what drives me to keep going and to try to get these children cured without toxicity and side effects.”

Professor Jonathan Bond, another cancer specialist at Crumlin Children’s Hospital, said the biggest step in research in recent years has been in immunotherapy.

“We’re now using something called Car T cells,” he said.

“They are genetically engineered white blood cells extracted from the patients themselves to attack the leukaemia cells.

“This form of treatment now has approval from the European Board of Medicine so it should be used in Ireland very soon.”

Today is International Childhood Cancer Day, which is a global collaborative campaign to raise awareness about children with cancer.

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