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Newcastle scientists working to improve treatment of childhood brain cancers

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 December 2002

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A greater understanding of how children’s brain cancers grow and spread could lead to more sophisticated treatments for the disease, according to Newcastle based scientists.

Treatments for brain tumours are harsh and can have serious side effects. But the team at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research are identifying molecules that can help to predict how aggressive a tumour will be.

Cancer Research UK believes that the knowledge could lead to more effective treatments, with fewer side effects, tailored to the needs of the individual child.

Working with an international team, the Newcastle scientists have focussed on two childhood brain cancers: medulloblastoma and ependymoma.

Dr David Ellison, one of the principal investigators says; “Management of childhood brain tumours is unlikely to improve without a greater understanding of the diseases.

By identifying the key molecules involved in these tumours and how they manifest in cells, we can predict a tumour’s behaviour and tailor the treatment to the individual, and hopefully reduce problems later in life.”

In ependymoma it has been shown that two molecules – ERB-B2 and ERB-B4 are found in 75 per cent of tumours. The researchers also noted that high levels of these receptors are an indication that a tumour will be more aggressive than one with lower levels.

ERB-B2 has also been found in 80 per cent of medulloblastomas, and abnormalities of chromosome 17 are also common.

Recognising the signs of aggressive behaviour in tumours could allow them to be better classified. Then a patient’s clinical outcome can be predicted and treatment tailored to better fit their needs.

Medulloblastoma accounts for around 20 per cent of childhood brain cancers and ependymoma around 10 per cent.

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK says: “Understanding these cancers better will provide us with the opportunity to develop treatments that not only target specific tumour types but which may also improve the patient’s quality of life.”