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Can Army Cadets from West Point Help Pediatric Brain Tumor Treatments Get to Market?

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During a mid-March scientific and policy meeting, a group of cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point – none biology or pre-med majors – stood before a group of leading international pediatric cancer researchers, representatives from major biopharmaceutical companies, and officials from government agencies like the National Cancer Institute, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the European Medicines Agency, and told their distinguished audience – many double their age and far more than double their experience in the field – how they could work together to overcome the barriers to pediatric cancer drug development.

The cadets were presenting preliminary findings from their project “Confronting the Impediments to Pediatric Brain Tumor Treatment Development” during the Pediatric Brain Tumor and Cancer Drug Development Working Group in Washington, D.C.

“When the cadets first presented to the Working Group we had organized in March, it was incredible the level of sophistication these young men and women had developed in such a short period of time,” said N. Paul TonThat, CEO, National Brain Tumor Society. “It speaks volumes of their work that a room full of the foremost leaders in pediatric cancer drug discovery and development, would be as receptive and supportive of their findings as we saw that day.”

Now, the cadets have wrapped up their project, and are ready to let the community know their plan to help move the field of pediatric brain tumor and cancer research forward.

Impressively, the cadets’ report found some of the same barriers to more effective pediatric brain tumor drug development as the experts had identified in advance of the National Brain Tumor Society’s latest pediatric initiative, Project Impact, and at the Working Group meeting. The cadets’ report also calls for “big tent” approach to the problem of pediatric brain tumors. The team’s recommendations consisted of three major strategies:

  1. Unifying all nonprofit advocacy groups with an interest in pediatric brain tumors under one umbrella, and designating a core governance node to lead the effort with the support and input of all member groups. This group will provide a stronger voice to rally support from both the community and policy makers.
  2. Create a portfolio fund that solicits and aggregates money from nonprofits, Industry, and government grants to direct to pediatric research projects identified as the most efficient and focused research. This fund will reduce the economic risk of investments from any one group, currently a major barrier in pediatric brain tumor research.
  3. Take-up legislative action that pushes for congress to:
    • Dedicate more funding specifically to childhood cancers
    • Update the Orphan Drug Act of 1983 to grant patent exclusivity extensions to drug companies that conduct research on behalf of the research network created in #1

The cadets’ project was for a class on “systems engineering,” which aims to provide, “an understanding of how to apply engineering concepts and principles to…projects, management issues, and technology-laden organizations.”  The goal was to create a system that encourages the development of drugs to treat pediatric brain tumors. Their instructor, a retired Army Colonel, Michael J. Kwinn, Jr.,PhD, lost his son, Michael, to brain cancer in 2003.

Dr. Kwinn, who also manages his own pediatric brain tumor nonprofit, the Friends4Michael Foundation, had attended the inaugural meeting of the Pediatric Brain Tumor and Cancer Drug Development Working Group in November of 2013, which discussed – from the perspective of various stakeholders – how to improve the system to bring drugs to clinical trials to treat pediatric cancer (and pediatric high-grade glioma, a group of some of the most deadly of pediatric tumors, particularly).

What came out of that meeting was that, unfortunately, many impediments exist to getting better treatments to children with the deadliest of cancers well beyond the underlying biology.

For some that realization might be daunting, but Dr. Kwinn knew his group of cadets (a mix of seniors and juniors) would be up for the challenge.

“These USMA Cadets did an amazing job working on an extremely complicated problem in a very short timeframe,” said Dr. Kwinn. “They took on the complexity of the problem by breaking it down into parts and attacking each aspect simultaneously. They combined their insights quickly and then determined options for solving the issues they identified.  From an instructor viewpoint, I could not be more proud…From the viewpoint of an advocate, and a father of a child who passed away from a brain tumor, the vigor and enthusiasm in which this group of young, future leaders of our Nation showed in working on this project was nothing short of inspirational and moving.”

The project served as the capstone project for Dr. Kwinn’s class, and was presented during the 10th General Donald R. Keith Memorial Capstone Conference, held annually as a forum for cadets to present their capstone work to fellow students, faculty, and research sponsors. National Brain Tumor Society’s CEO, Paul TonThat, was happy to make the trip out to West Point to watch the presentation.

Moving forward, the National Brain Tumor Society would like to support the cadet’s work by using their final report as a blueprint to unify the pediatric brain tumor community. We believe that the cadets’ (most of whom are now Second Lieutenants in the Army after having graduated just last week) recommendations could result in complementary effort that would run in conjunction with Project Impact, and together speed, much needed progress against pediatric brain tumors.

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