Understanding the Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Dr Rachel Conyers is a woman on a mission. As a senior oncologist at The Royal Children’s Hospital she knows that 20-30% of her patients will be susceptible to heart damage as a side effect of their chemotherapy treatment.  

The risk of heart failure is nine times more likely in these patients, but at the moment there’s no way of predicting which children will have this adverse reaction.  

So Dr Conyers is leading a ground-breaking research project, with $215,000 of funding from My Room in partnership with the Children’s Cancer Foundation, to develop a way of identifying in advance which patients are likely to be at risk.

“Our research is novel and combines a stem cell approach developing heart cells and also genetic testing to identify genes that predispose patients to this toxicity,” said Dr Conyers.

Dr Conyers will work with a team of experts from The Royal Children’s Hospital and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.  Among the team will be expert cardiologist Associate Professor Michael Cheung who leads the heart research group at Murdoch Childrens. The team will also collaborate with other scientific leaders in the field from the British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada.  

The 2-year project will study more than 300 children who’ve had chemotherapy treatment at The Royal Children’s Hospital and Monash Children’s Hospital. The researchers will firstly undertake detailed genetic profiling of these children. With this information they will then use stem cell technology to develop a rapid clinical tool that will predict which patients are at high risk of developing heart damage as a side effect of their chemotherapy treatment.

By getting ahead of the problem and identifying in advance which children are most at risk, it will enable doctors around the world to be much more effective in determining which treatment is best for different subtypes of cancer, therefore reducing the harmful side effects of the chemotherapy.

“Ultimately we aim to create a diagnostic screen to inform oncologists of a patient’s risk of heart complications from anthracyclines. The clinician can then modify treatment dose or medication choice to avoid this. The research is critically important to reduce one of the greatest complications of treating childhood cancer,” said Dr Conyers.

Dr. Rachel Conyers