Amy Grant Has Faith About Defeating Pediatric Cancers
By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
There's an old saying that "a stitch in time saves nine." When it comes to
promoting the Quilt of Dreams campaign for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital,
singer Amy Grant knows that a stitch in time may actually save lives.
"I signed on immediately to do this because I've been working with St. Jude
for nearly ten years, and I know how many children this incredible hospital
saves every year," Grant says. "Last year the Quilt of Dreams raised nearly
one million dollars. The money we raise now will help save many more children
Founded by the late entertainer Danny Thomas, St. Jude is a unique children's
hospital; no child will ever be turned away because their family cannot
"Awareness is vital," states Grant, who collects quilts. "People need to know
how incredible St. Jude is and that if someone has a sick child, they know where
to take them. Parents have to know about St. Jude for it to be an option."
And there has to be funding.
Supported by the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, St. Jude not
only provides treatment but travel and living arrangements. From Target House
to Ronald McDonald House, families are provided with accommodations and meals so
they have a place to stay comfortably with their child during what are sometimes lengthy
"I imagine that having a very sick child is a very lonely, isolating feeling,"
Grant says. "St. Jude allows parents to focus on their child and nothing else
and provides a community to help ease this sense of being all alone. You cannot
imagine what a blessing this is for families unless you've been to St. Jude
and talked to them. They will each tell you what a miracle this hospital is
Grant hopes even more "miracles" will happen this year, because she knows St.
Jude researchers are nearing breakthroughs on many medical fronts. "Curing childhood
cancers would be a dream come true for every parent and every patient," she
Sponsored by Hancock Fabrics, last year more than 3,500 quilts were made and
donated. This year Hancock has designed 37 new fabric patterns based on the
St. Jude children's dreams. A portion of each sale of each yard of fabric will
be donated to help support the renowned hospital's research and treatment of
Located in Memphis, Tennessee, St. Jude has invested in establishing an unsurpassed
'dream team' of researchers. According to Essential Science Indicators, the hospital's
scientists and doctors publish 20 times more clinical research studies, per
patient treated, than all other American cancer centers combined.
Among the harder cancers for these researchers to defeat has been medulloblastoma,
the most common malignant brain tumor that occurs in children.
"About one in 600 children will get cancer," says Richard Gilbertson, Assistant
Professor of Neurobiology at St. Jude. "About 20% of those will get brain tumors.
As the most common brain tumor, at St. Jude we'll see about 30 to 40 new cases
of medulloblastoma every year."
Medulloblastoma is a brain tumor that occurs in the cerebellum, near the back
of the head. Unlike most brain tumors, which remain confined to the head, medulloblastoma
is a very aggressive disease that spreads throughout the brain, down the spine
and to other parts of the body.
The average age of diagnosis for medulloblastoma is six years. Detected by
MRI or CT scan, medulloblastoma is slightly more common in boys than girls, with
common symptoms being:
- Vomiting (especially in the morning)
- Balance problems -- children have trouble walking straight up, often falling
to one side
Once uniformly fatal, St. Jude's now cures up to 80% of medulloblastomas in
children over three who have no evidence of metastatic disease.
But the news is nightmarish when this aggressive tumor has spread.
"A metastatic patient has about a 50/50 chance of survival," Gilbertson states.
"And if the treatments fail the child, the outlook is extremely poor - the chance
of survival is 10% or less."
The gold standard for treatment includes neurosurgery, radiation therapy and
chemotherapy. After surgeons remove as much of the tumor as possible, patients
are given high dose chemotherapy and high dose radiation to the brain and spine.
"It's a bit of a double-edged sword," Gilbertson explains. "The aggressive
treatment is designed to match this very aggressive disease, but it is also exceptionally
damaging; patients lose IQ and have endocrine and growth problems. The disease
is horrible, but many patients achieving cure are left with long term side effects."
But St. Jude researchers are trying to find more quality of life-sparing treatments.
In a new published study, Gilbertson and his colleagues have identified a possible
biomarker that can alert doctors to which patients have more aggressive disease
and thus need aggressive treatment.
"We looked for a number of abnormalities in the tumor and one of them is a
protein called ERBB2," Gilbertson explains. "Despite good prognoses, we know
that we're still going to lose 20% of patients. We just don't know who they
are. But now if we look at their ERBB2 levels we may be able to identify who
will do better. If a patient's ERBB2 level was zero - they did better, none
of them died. If the patients had the protein, then they did much worse - half
of them died."
This means Gilbertson can potentially tell doctors which kids should get aggressive
therapy and which can be spared the more damaging treatments.
The next phase of the study is currently running and Gilbertson says his lab
will be examining ERBB2 levels as well as performing about 20 other molecular
tests on the tumors. The goal is to better identify the patients who will do
well and those who will do badly so that treatments can be tailored to each
Identifying biomarkers also helps develop new treatments that one day might
eliminate the need for the destructive radiation and chemotherapy protocol.
"With these molecular tests, we also hope to identify new targets for developing
new medications," Gilbertson states. "The ERBB2 receptor is important in many
other cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer, so we are hoping to develop
new drugs that target this receptor. What we're finding is that there are some
drugs which can inhibit the ERBB2 receptor in medulloblastoma."
Gilbertson says the unique campus-like atmosphere created by Danny Thomas'
vision is what inspires researchers like him. "The very reason I came to St.
Jude is because there really is an integrated lab and clinic here," he says.
"We see the children every day. It motivates us all. Sure, we have unrivaled
facilities, but most importantly we work together. It is very clear what our
mission is here."
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village like St. Jude
to heal a child.
"It is amazing how much can be accomplished when a massive number of people
are willing to do a little something," says Grant, who is currently writing
new songs for her upcoming CD. "The Quilt of Dreams is a metaphor for exactly
the way everyone has come together piece by piece, each in a small way, to form
the quilt of miracles that is St. Jude."
• St. Jude Children's Research
is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns,
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Created: 4/17/2004  - John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 4/17/2004  - Donnica Moore, M.D.