he hardest part is knowing that there is a possibility that your child will not be with you anymore,” says Still.

Still and Leah, whom her proud father calls “Lee-Lee,” are one of thousands of families whose lives have been completely altered by this illness. In Canada, an estimated 1,500 children will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and one in five will not survive their disease.

Such statistics are devastating, but Dr. David Stojdl, a Senior Scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute in Ottawa, has a message of hope. “We now know that each patient has a unique set of cancer mutations, and that we are not treating one cancer but many unique cancers within each patient — something current therapies struggle with.”

“I told her that it’s a sickness that some people get and that she had to fight as hard as she could to win.”

Dr. Stojdl explains that the immune system is able to “keep pace” with these cancer mutations and hunt down tumour cells based on their unique genetic signatures — insight that is fuelling new research to create immunotherapies for hard-to-treat cancers.

Staying strong

Leah was only four years old when she was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer.  “I told her that it’s a sickness that some people get and that she had to fight as hard as she could to win,” says Still.

Luckily for Leah, and the many other children diagnosed each year with cancer, physicians have more tools than ever before to help win that fight. For instance, her life-saving treatment included antibody therapy — a breakthrough area of research that uses the body’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.

Even though immunotherapy is showing promise, it isn’t perfect yet. Dr. Stojdl’s lab is working on improving these types of treatments to provide even better outcomes for patients.

“The immune system is incredibly potent, but it can get shut down by established tumours,” explains Dr. Stojdl. “We are developing a new personalized cancer immunotherapy that uses oncolytic viruses to re-boot the immune system while simultaneously launching an array of immune cells that attack many cancer signatures at once, thereby preventing tumours from evading therapy.”

Winning the fight

Throughout the 41 days of chemotherapy, 40 days of antibody therapy, 19 days of radiation, and 7 hours of surgery, Still says he got his strength from his little girl. With a team of doctors and her dad as her coach and biggest cheerleader, Leah beat cancer by age five.

“Leah’s outcome is a fantastic success story, but current cancer treatments are failing too many kids,” says Dr. Stojdl. “Cutting-edge immunotherapies, like CAR T-cell therapy, which re-programs T cells to recognize a specific cancer target, are already showing tremendous promise in the clinic, curing kids and adults  with terminal leukemia.”

Dr. Stojdl hopes that soon every child with cancer will be able to benefit from these types of advances in immunotherapy treatment — so children can get back to being kids instead of patients.

Now that Leah has been cleared of cancer, the dynamic duo is doing their best to return to a normal life — although Still says his little girl has had to grow well beyond her years. “She appreciates the little things in life more because, for a year and a half, they were taken away from her.”