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Scientists find marker that signals better brain cancer survival for children

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by Cancer Research UK | News

28 October 2005

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Scientists supported by Cancer Research UK and the Samantha Dickson Research Trust have uncovered a protein that signals a more favourable survival for children with a form of childhood brain tumour, reveals a study published today (Friday) in the Journal of Clinical Oncology*.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who are members of the United Kingdom Children’s Cancer Study Group (UKCCSG), studied the tumour cells of 109 patients with a form of malignant childhood brain tumour called medulloblastoma. The results from the European-wide trial** revealed that 25 per cent of the tumours showed activation of a protein called Beta-catenin. The 27 patients with this protein had a survival rate of nearly 93 per cent, compared to 65 per cent for patients without it.

Treatments for childhood brain tumours are intensive and can have difficult side effects. Understanding more about how a tumour is likely to behave may allow doctors to tailor treatments to better suit individual children.

The researchers believe that patients who carry the activated protein have a milder form of the disease and could be spared unnecessary treatment. This could reduce the impact of side effects on patients’ later life. For children with more aggressive tumours, intensive therapies could be prescribed earlier to try to improve these patients’ outcome.

Study author David Ellison, Professor of Neuropathology at Newcastle University’s Northern Institute for Cancer Research, says: “This is the first time that a protein has been identified which signals a more favourable outcome in childhood medulloblastoma. We hope this discovery will make a crucial difference for patients having treatment for this type of brain tumour in the future.

“What was surprising about our results is that the catenin protein had previously been shown to be associated with aggressive behaviour in other cancers. In contrast we found that it was such a strong marker of positive outcome in medulloblastoma that even those patients whose cancer had been diagnosed at a later stage, when it had spread, had a more favourable outcome than those patients who lacked the activated protein.”

Neil Dickson, Chairman of the Samantha Dickson Research Trust, says: “When our daughter Samantha died from a brain tumour in 1996 aged 16, we were determined to see something positive come about from her death.

“Our charity was set up to raise awareness and funds for research into brain tumours, and we are delighted that this significant finding offers the potential for improved quality of life and survival times for sufferers of medulloblastoma.”

Professor John Toy, Medical Director of Cancer Research UK, says: “The management of childhood brain tumours will only improve with a greater understanding of the disease and these researchers have made an important contribution to identifying how these tumours respond to treatment.

“Finding better treatments for children with cancer has always been difficult due to the mercifully small number of cases. The UKCCSG has been instrumental in coordinating large-scale international trials and this research is an excellent example of how collaboration can lead to advances in childhood cancer.”

For media enquiries please contact Emma Gilgunn-Jones on 020 7061 8311 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.