Biostatisticians and Childhood Cancer Research
Biostatistics is one of the core disciplines of public health. Biostatistical science includes the application of statistical methods to research in the biological sciences, and the development of new statistical methodology to apply to that research.
Dr. James Anderson, a professor in the Department of Biostatistics, is one of the biostatisticians at the UNMC College of Public Health who collaborates with the clinical researchers of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG). The COG is a consortium of more than 200 hospitals and medical centers, which is funded by the National Cancer Institute to conduct studies of the biology and treatment of childhood cancers.
The COG conducts clinical research studies designed to compare various treatment approaches to childhood cancers. These studies need to enroll enough study subjects to be confident that the study will identify important differences in the success rate between the treatments being compared, if they exist.
The cure of childhood cancer is one of medicine’s major success stories. In the 1950s, no child diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia was cured, and the cure rate for most childhood solid tumors (like bone and brain tumors) was less than 25%. Today, as a result of years of cooperative research, the cure rate for childhood cancer is near 75% overall, and for some childhood cancers, the rate exceeds 95%.
In addition to trying to improve cure rates for children with cancer, the COG is also conducting “reduction in therapy” studies. These studies have as their goal the maintenance of cure rates obtained with more aggressive therapy, but with a reduction in short- and long-term toxicities. “We recently completed a treatment study for children with a soft tissue sarcoma called rhabdomyosarcoma with ‘low risk’ disease,” said Dr. Anderson. “Standard therapy caused most boys to be infertile. We were able to reduce therapy, maintaining fertility in boys and also maintaining the 95% cure rate seen with more aggressive therapy.”
Statisticians collaborate on the study design, determine the required number of study subjects, and help create data capture forms to ensure that all the information necessary to answer the study questions is collected.
During the study, statisticians monitor enrollment, evaluate treatment-related adverse events, and analyze study outcome to ensure that subjects are not receiving inferior treatment. Once the study question has been answered, statisticians collaborate with their clinical colleagues to report the results of the research at medical meetings and in medical journals.
“It is incredibly rewarding to be a part of this important research,” said Dr. Anderson.