Tumours of the nervous system kill more children than any other cancer. These diseases form in delicate developing tissues; therefore, children who survive these cancers suffer life-long and life-changing side effects. Unless we change radically the way we study and treat these diseases, cancer will remain a leading cause of childhood death for decades to come.
Prior studies by the ‘Virtual Child’ Team (VCT) have unmasked specific combinations of cells, mutations and local tissue signals in the embryo that cause cells to become stuck in a rapidly dividing state, ultimately giving birth to neural cancers. These insights hold promise to develop new treatments; but, efforts to do so have been limited by the rarity of these diseases, and therefore low interest among the pharmaceutical sector; poor understanding of their biology, including inappropriate assumptions that childhood cancers are similar to those in adults; and the limited capacity of the paediatric research community.
The vision of the VCT is to remove these road-blocks to cure by building the ‘Virtual Child’–the first computer model at cellular resolution of normal and cancerous nervous system development. The VCT represents a unique combination of world-leading skills in neural development, evolution, immunology, advanced computation, artificial intelligence (AI), childhood cancer and patient advocacy. The effort is underpinned by prior VCT discoveries, the International Cancer Genome Consortium and Human Cell Atlas, and highly innovative, motivated and world-class commercial partners.
The ‘Virtual Child’ will provide a dynamic, adaptive, multi-modal, AI model of nervous system development, from early embryogenesis to the birth of cancer. ‘Ever-learning’ and available to the world-wide research and patient community, the ‘Virtual Child’ will enable large-scale discovery and predictions of potential new treatment targets in childhood cancer. As the Virtual Child ‘develops tumours’ we will use it to conduct unlimited virtual clinical trials in silico; thereby identifying, predicting and prioritising potential new treatments, and how to use them, before they are ever given to children. In this manner, we will invent completely new treatments for children with neural tumours, including drugs and immunotherapeutic innovations as well as combinations of these. We will test these treatments in laboratory studies and translate those that work directly to the clinic. All this information (successes and failures) will be fed back to refine, and continuously educate, the ‘Virtual Child’, further increasing its predictive power. We envisage adding other organ systems to the ‘Virtual Child’, including the sites of other common childhood cancers e.g., bone and muscle, ultimately transforming the way the world understands and treats childhood cancer.
Patients and researchers from all across the world will be engaged in shaping the Virtual Child by contributing specific requests, creative ideas, and data through our website as well as social media channels. Our diverse group of experienced paediatric cancer advocates from the UK, Europe and North America will be central to the VCT; leading one of our four Workstreams and providing invaluable experience and expertise to engage patients, their families and the public in this world-leading initiative.