Hospitals ease cancer battles of young patients


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been a weekly routine for years at the Jolley household in Independence, Mo. — crushing chemotherapy pills and mixing them with fruit juice so that 6-year-old Trevor, who is under treatment for leukemia, can gulp them down.

“I think almost all of us who have children with cancer have to deal with crushing pills,” said Trevor’s mother, Amy Jolley. “Parents are crushing chemo pills on the kitchen counter.”

The reason: Many cancer drugs were developed with adult patients in mind, and a lot are in pills that young children find hard to swallow.

That situation may be about to change.

Researchers at Children’s Mercy Hospital and the University of Kansas Medical Center are reformulating drugs into liquids that are easy to swallow — and not bad-tasting, either.

“It’s sweet, nondescript, not quite cherry-flavor,” Kathleen Neville, a cancer drug researcher at Children’s Mercy, said of a liquid version of a mainstay cancer drug that may soon be tried on patients.

Neville, along with Amy and Trevor Jolley, were part of a presentation last week at Children’s Mercy to showcase cancer research collaborations between the hospital and other research centers.

And Neville is working with researchers at the University of Kansas Cancer Center’s drug discovery program to develop a liquid version of 6-mercaptopurine, 6-MP, a drug essential for fighting childhood leukemia and other conditions.

“It’s the very backbone of treatment,” Neville said.

The drug has been around for about 50 years, but only as a tablet. Pharmacists can crush and mix 6-MP into a liquid for large medical centers such as Children’s Mercy that have access to a compounding pharmacy to customize drugs. But this service isn’t available at every hospital, and mixing 6-MP this way “is not an exact science,” Neville said.

Neville said the market for a standardized liquid version of 6-MP is too small to interest drug companies in investing in its development.

“There is no incentive for big pharma to take this one, so it’s up to the academic community,” she said.

Children won’t be the only patients to benefit, Neville said. A liquid 6-MP also may be prescribed to the elderly and others who have difficulty swallowing.

On Tuesday, Neville took her preliminary research data to the Food and Drug Administration.

“There’s still some fine-tuning of the formulation,” she said.

Neville expects a definitive clinical trial of the final version of the drug in the near future. FDA approval may be about five years off.

“In the drug development world that’s a blink of an eye,” Neville said.

Neville already is planning to work with the school’s researchers on “pediatric-friendly” reformulations of other cancer drugs.

“There’s a list that long,” she said, stretching her hands far apart. “So stay tuned.”