Newcastle researcher dedicates his work to childhood cancer after suffering from leukaemia as a teenager | Action Medical Research

Newcastle researcher dedicates his work to childhood cancer after suffering from leukaemia as a teenager

6 December 2010

 A specialist Newcastle-based doctor is undertaking a pioneering study into what causes life-threatening brain tumours in children under-three – after being awarded a Research Training Fellowship (RTF) from children’s health charity Action Medical Research. 

Dr Chris Howell, who will be carrying out his research over three years at Newcastle, knows firsthand how devastating childhood cancer can be to a family, having been diagnosed with a form of leukaemia at the age of 13. 
He said: “I was treated at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, as a child cancer patient myself and we lived about 40 miles away from the hospital so I experienced time away from my family. I had younger siblings so mum and dad were like ships passing in the night spending time with me and ferrying them to school and back as well. It was a very unpleasant time for all of us. 
“I spent 3-4 months continuously in hospital and had chemotherapy treatment. When I went back to school I enjoyed doing science and I wanted to use that in the broadest sense to do something with my career.”
Dr Howell’s experience in hospital inspired him to attend medical school where he spent a year doing research which included looking at leukaemia treatments. He then went on to work in paediatrics, including paediatric oncology. 
He said: “I enjoyed that oncology had a very systematic approach, with clinical trials always asking if treatments could be made better, and biological studies, all aimed at improving treatments for patients. It is also a speciality where the art of medicine- the communication skills and the long- term relationships you build with your patients- are critical, and that appealed to me.”  
Dr Howell is the first childhood cancer specialist to be awarded a fellowship by the charity. The fellowships are awarded to help the brightest and best doctors, allied health professionals and bioengineers to develop their careers in medical research. 
Dr Howell, who is based at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, Newcastle University, said: “Around one in ten of the children who die from cancer in the UK have a brain tumour called medulloblastoma. ,  Diagnosis of cancer in any child is a devastating blow. This is particularly true in cases of infant medulloblastoma, when the tumour occurs in children under three. 
“Aggressive surgery, chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy are needed to give children the best chance of a cure. Treatment is extremely gruelling, causing unpleasant side effects and requiring long stays in a specialist hospital, often a long way from home,” he said. 
Unfortunately, 60 per cent of those under three who are affected still lose their lives to their brain tumour.   Those who do survive can be left with lifelong problems. ,  Dr Howell is determined to change things for the better and is looking for genetic factors that cause medulloblastoma in children under three and is investigating whether a tumour’s genetic make-up influences the severity of the illness and a child’s chances of survival. 
He said: “Because medulloblastoma is a brain tumour, unfortunately many patients suffer damage to their neurological development, and that is fundamentally changing who they can grow up to become. Some of that damage is driven by the vital treatments they need such as neurosurgery and radiotherapy. 
“With leukaemia, we are now 20 years further on than when I was treated and can tell the difference between types and individualise treatments better, thanks to discoveries in genetics research. We haven’t got that far with Medulloblastoma. That approach of drilling down to the genetics basis will take us forward in the same way and show us good results. I have every confidence we could take it forward and have similar effects on treatment improvements.” 
Dr Yolande Harley, Deputy Director of Research at Action Medical Research, said: “The charity finds and funds some of the best medical research in the world for the benefit of babies, children and young people. Our gold standard scientific review process ensures that we only fund the best doctors and researchers in children’s hospitals, specialist units and universities across the UK.”

Notes to editors:


For information please contact: 
Claudine Powell, Communications Manager, Tel: 01403 327478, Email:
The Research Training Fellowship grant awarded to Dr Howell was for £184,533 including a donation of £20,000 from the Freemason’s Grand Charity. 
Action Medical Research is the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs, including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:
tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies 
helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections 
targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children. 
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2. An Assessment of Need for Child and Adolescent Cancer Services in England and Wales. Final report, August 2004. Appendix 4: NRCT Mortality data for the 0-14 age group (Page 96)
3. Carlotti Jr C, Smith C, Rutka J. The molecular genetics of medulloblastoma: an assessment of new therapeutic targets. Neurosurgical Review 2008; 31(4):359-69.
4. Palmer SL, Reddick WE, Gajjar A. Understanding the Cognitive Impact on Children Who are Treated for Medulloblastoma. J Pediat Psychol 2007; 32(9):1040-9.
5. Kiltie A, Lashford L, Gattameni H. Survival and Late Effects in Medulloblastoma Patients Treated With Craniospinal Irradiation Under Three Years Old. Medical and Pediatric Oncology 1997; 28:348-54.
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