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The scientists on a mission to revolutionise brain tumour research

by Gabriella Beer | Analysis

17 June 2019

22 comments 22 comments

Illustration of a puzzle of a brain with missing pieces

In January 2018, Baroness Tessa Jowell bravely stood up in the House of Lords and called for more funding and support for people with brain tumours. “For what would every cancer patient want?” she asked. “To know that the best, the latest science was being used – wherever in the world it was developed, whoever began it.”

She stressed the need for investment and international collaboration, so we’re delighted to announce 3 newly-funded, world-class brain tumour research teams that aren’t afraid to think big.

The odds of surviving a brain tumour have remained dismally low for decades. And our Brain Tumour Awards, which were announced in May 2018, are designed to accelerate progress in understanding brain tumours and finding ways to treat them.

From developing tiny particles that could deliver drugs across the barrier surrounding the brain to going back to basics, the teams’ science impressed our expert panel. And they will now receive £18 million to put their research plans in to action.

We spoke to the team leaders about how they plan to use this much-needed cash injection.

New strides across the brain’s protective barrier

Brain tumours are a complex patchwork of cells that can adapt rapidly to cancer drugs. “It’s very unlikely that a single drug is going to do much,” says Professor Neil Carragher, from the University of Edinburgh, who is fronting one of the teams and will also be supported by The Brain Tumour Charity.

“We really need drug combinations.”

To find these combinations, Carragher’s team – including other laboratories from the University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT in the US – will scour a chemical library containing thousands of different potential drugs, testing thousands of different combinations on brain tumour samples collected from patients. They’ll speed this process up by using automated, robotic microscopes.

Carragher is all too aware that people are dying from brain tumours right now. He says they’ll be testing all approved drugs, as well as experimental drugs that have passed initial safety testing in people. This means that if an effective drug combination is found, the team won’t have to jump the initial regulatory hurdles needed to get them into clinical testing, which could help get promising treatments to patients faster.

Nanoparticles crossing the blood brain barrier in mice. (Lam. C, F. et al. 2018)

Outsmarting brain tumours’ survival tactics isn’t the only challenge. They’re also shielded from drugs by a protective filter, called the blood brain barrier, that separates the blood from the fluid that bathes the brain. Until now, it’s been a struggle getting any cancer drug through, let alone many. Luckily, the team has a potential nano-sized solution.

Professor Paula Hammond, head of chemical engineering at the Koch Institute, and also part of the team, has invented nanoparticles that can deliver drug combinations across the blood brain barrier.

Once they’ve placed the drug inside the nanoparticle, says Carragher, they make another layer and fit a different drug in a separate compartment. “You have multiple drugs, mixed together in different parts of the nanoparticle,” he says.

The results from the team’s initial lab tests should point to the best drug combination that can be loaded up into these nanoparticles. The hope is that this approach will help old drugs that previously failed to break through the barrier a fresh chance at reaching and targeting the brain tumour.

Designing new brain tumour drugs specifically for children

Professor Richard Gilbertson, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, is starting from the position that we need to completely rethink research into childhood brain tumours.

“We’ve not moved the needle in brain tumours for children in the last 50 years,” he says, explaining that that the solution to children’s brain tumours may lie at the start of a brain cell’s life.

“A lot of children’s brain tumours are developmental diseases. Our studies have shown that the biology of cells in a brain tumour of a five-year-old is very similar to a population of cells which existed when the baby was an embryo in the womb,” Gilbertson explains.

We’ve not moved the needle in brain tumours for children in the last 50 years.

– Professor Richard Gilbertson, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

To understand why and how this happens, Gilbertson’s team is going to build a map that details the activity of normal cells in the brain.

“This tissue that was once present when these kids were in the womb is now in the wrong place at the wrong time. By having a neuroscience approach, which looks at normal development and seeing what persists, you can start to look at a whole series of drug targets which wasn’t available before.”

By understanding what’s normal, Gilbertson hopes to build a clearer picture of how these processes go wrong to form a tumour. And he thinks the answer is right in front of us, it just takes careful and meticulous investigation of basic brain biology.

Drugging the ‘undruggable’

Our third team is also hoping to fill in the blanks around brain biology.

They’re focusing on glioblastoma, the most common and lethal brain tumour that kills more people than any other. It’s the disease Tessa Jowell sadly died from.

According to the project’s lead, Professor Steve Pollard from the University of Edinburgh, these aggressive brain tumours live in a paradox. “A large proportion of the tumour cells within the tumours aren’t really active, they’re sleeping,” he says.

These dormant cells are what makes brain tumours so hard to treat. When sleeping cells are inactive, they don’t respond to radiotherapy or chemo. When the patient stops receiving treatment, these dormant cells wake up, and the disease returns.

“We don’t know what defines these sleeping cells, or how they wake up,” says Pollard.

But if they did then they could design small molecules that could stop the tumour growing again. These therapies could either force the tumour cells to permanently stay asleep, or alternatively, force them out of their slumber so treatment eliminates them.

“We’re asking ourselves: ‘how can we drug the undruggable?’” says Pollard. Research suggests it’s more complicated than cells simply being ‘awake’ or ‘asleep’. Understanding the whole range of cell states could point to common molecules on all brain tumour cells, sleepy or awake, that could be useful targets for drugs.

“We know that these cell states are controlled by molecules that turn genes on and off,” says Pollard. So part of the team will be finding new drugs that could intercept these molecules.

Other team members will try to understand why the immune system doesn’t detect these sleeping cells.

“This could help us keep sleeping cells under control and prevent tumours returning.”

Let the research begin

There’s a lot of hard work ahead, but these scientists certainly bring hope to a disease that has cut short many lives. We don’t yet know what they will discover, but we do know these teams offer “the best, the latest science” and bring us one step closer to Baroness Jowell’s wish: “That we can live well with cancer, not just be dying of it. All of us. For longer.”

Gabi


    Comments

  • Mrs Mav is Brammer
    1 November 2019

    is a brain tumour hereditary? my Son diagnosed Glioblastoma stage 4 in 2009..inoperable..had chemo.radiotherapy avastin etc but died in 2013 aged 48…
    My father in 1955 diagnosed with Acromeglia a tumour on his pituitary gland.had operation to remove it at MRI then some kind of radiation at Christies…he was with us for 6yrs….I often wonder if they both had the same one and if it was genetic…
    needless to say I miss both every day and make donations often to brain cancer research…you all do a wonderful job but sadly we are still watching our loved ones go through the process of dying and losing themselves to this horrible cancer…

  • Hazel Walsh
    26 August 2019

    I lost my sister to glio 4 after 6 months 3 weeks ago .aged 58 my heart is broke I pray they get a cure or treatment so no one else has to go through what she went through 🙏

  • Kathy
    12 July 2019

    It would be good if they did the
    same with breast cancer there are so many women and men that it is out of control this gover ment needs also to spend some money on curing all cancers and creating pills to take that have no side effects instead of the ones they have now that thin your bones so you will proberbly effect your mobility

  • Tripti Goel
    10 July 2019

    Good to hear about the forthcoming research about the brain tumor therapy and the work on drug delivery system.. While going along with my younger sister, for her treatment for Glioblastoma, I always wondered why not another leap in the drugs / drug delivery system for the brain tumor patients after TMZ. And why it is so hard to crack this BBB.
    I am so unfortunate to loose her in June 2019. Hope something for good emerges soon to save all these precious lives.

  • Lisa
    10 July 2019

    I lost my husband in 2017 to GBM4 leaving behind our 2 children aged 16 and 10. It is a truly cruel disease. So glad some much needed research is being done. Let’s hope a significant breakthrough is made.

  • Katrina Daley
    9 July 2019

    I am really glad that more is being done to combat glioblastomas as my husband died of GBM4 in February 2019, a bit late for him but hopefully one day other people will not have to endure what he did.

  • Rosemary
    8 July 2019

    Sounds like more being done thats good newsfor me maybe

  • Mrs Debbie Wilkins
    8 July 2019

    This is fantastic news! I am one of the rare survivors of a brain tumour aged 16 back in 1981, thanks to my amazing Neurosurgeon Mr Ian Cast, working out of Morriston Hospital. Due to a cold, he couldn’t perform brain surgery but instead treated the tumour through 27 sessions of radiotherapy and I have lived a full happy & healthy life since then.

  • Alun
    8 July 2019

    This such good news and I wish the researchers all success in their quest to beat this cancer. I lost my wife in 2008 to a brain tumour. They operated and removed as much of the tumour as was possible but it was so aggressive that it grew back at an alarming rate which subsequently lead to her sad loss. My best wishes to all concerned. Hope at last?

  • Andrea Boocock
    7 July 2019

    I think this is fantastic as both my parents died from glioblastoma brain tumours, and even though we offered to pay for screening for myself, I was told there wasn’t any and would I really want to know that was my fate !!!!! Hope they make a break through 🙏🏻

  • Nigel Chapman
    7 July 2019

    It’s good to see Brain Tumour research getting more funding.My wife died of a glioblastoma in 2000 when she was 37 and left behind a 5 year old daughter.Research into this type of tumour has been neglected for too long.

  • Emma Giles
    7 July 2019

    This is a really interesting article, and highlights how outdated a lot of the treatments are. As you say nothing has changed in the past 50 years. We lost our 5 year old daughter to DIPG. Will any of this money specifically go into DIPG research as well?

  • reply
    Gabriella Beer
    12 July 2019

    Hi Emma,
    We’re really sorry to hear about your daughter. One of these awards was given to Professor Richard Gilbertson at the University of Cambridge to research children’s brain tumours. His team will be looking at the differences in the biology of normal brain cells and brain tumour samples, including DIPG. The researchers hope the insights they get from the lab will help lead to new treatments for children. The other two projects aren’t studying DIPG specifically but aim to get a deeper understanding of brain tumours overall, which has the potential to improve our understanding of DIPG too. We’re also funding other work into DIPG, like some of Professor Chris Jones’s work at the ICR in London. He’s studying the genes and molecules that may be fuelling the disease. You can read more about his work in these blog posts.
    Best wishes,
    Gabi, Cancer Research UK.

  • Lesley Ross
    7 July 2019

    My husband died from glioblastoma when he was 33 .He left two children 6 and 3 . I really hope and pray that you will learn how to treat this so other people won’t have to go through what I did

  • Theresa Burrells
    7 July 2019

    Good luck to all the scientists and technicians involved in the finding of effective treatments for these devastating cancers. So pleased the funding is coming through for you. May the Gods be with you!

  • Caroline
    6 July 2019

    This is mind-blowingly awesome! I have a benign grade 2 pineocytoma that I have been living with for 17 years. Whilst it is being controlled by radiotherapy, it can’t be eliminated fully because of potential brain damage. This research is the first step on the road of hope for everyone affected by this awful illness. God bless the team and best wishes for you all xx

  • Jill Crookes
    6 July 2019

    This is great news. I lost my brother to glioblastoma. He was 54 years of age. He was diagnosed in August 2012 and died 18 months later, in 2014. It may be too late for him but more research and understanding of the disease will hopefully lead to better, more successful treatments and hopefully a cure one day. Good luck and my thoughts go out to everyone faced with this disease.

  • Rachel Massey
    6 July 2019

    I have a grade 3 AA so I’m over joyed by this news, may not help me but will help others in the future. Thank you

  • Janet Smith
    6 July 2019

    This is great news. My husband died of glioblastoma and my hope is that one day at cure, or at least better treatment options, will be found.

  • Mark Avery
    6 July 2019

    Great news!! And I wish the Scientists the very best of luck!

  • Alan Moore
    6 July 2019

    Wonderfully reassuring news, the more research the more that progress can be made.

  • NICOLA Coleman
    6 July 2019

    That all sounds great. My 10 year old daughter was diagnosed with pylocitic astrocytoma in 2012 and we have been through 2 rounds of chemo, surgery and are about to start proton therapy. She has been through so much if research could prevent other children going through the same it would be amazing.

  • Sue Clark
    5 July 2019

    This is great news. I lost my brother to a glioblastoma last year at the age of 54. He only lived 10 months after his diagnosis and went through so much. He donated his brain for research so I would like to think that he has helped a little in this much needed research. It may be too late for him but hopefully a cure will be found soon and others will have a better chance of survival.

    Comments

  • Mrs Mav is Brammer
    1 November 2019

    is a brain tumour hereditary? my Son diagnosed Glioblastoma stage 4 in 2009..inoperable..had chemo.radiotherapy avastin etc but died in 2013 aged 48…
    My father in 1955 diagnosed with Acromeglia a tumour on his pituitary gland.had operation to remove it at MRI then some kind of radiation at Christies…he was with us for 6yrs….I often wonder if they both had the same one and if it was genetic…
    needless to say I miss both every day and make donations often to brain cancer research…you all do a wonderful job but sadly we are still watching our loved ones go through the process of dying and losing themselves to this horrible cancer…

  • Hazel Walsh
    26 August 2019

    I lost my sister to glio 4 after 6 months 3 weeks ago .aged 58 my heart is broke I pray they get a cure or treatment so no one else has to go through what she went through 🙏

  • Kathy
    12 July 2019

    It would be good if they did the
    same with breast cancer there are so many women and men that it is out of control this gover ment needs also to spend some money on curing all cancers and creating pills to take that have no side effects instead of the ones they have now that thin your bones so you will proberbly effect your mobility

  • Tripti Goel
    10 July 2019

    Good to hear about the forthcoming research about the brain tumor therapy and the work on drug delivery system.. While going along with my younger sister, for her treatment for Glioblastoma, I always wondered why not another leap in the drugs / drug delivery system for the brain tumor patients after TMZ. And why it is so hard to crack this BBB.
    I am so unfortunate to loose her in June 2019. Hope something for good emerges soon to save all these precious lives.

  • Lisa
    10 July 2019

    I lost my husband in 2017 to GBM4 leaving behind our 2 children aged 16 and 10. It is a truly cruel disease. So glad some much needed research is being done. Let’s hope a significant breakthrough is made.

  • Katrina Daley
    9 July 2019

    I am really glad that more is being done to combat glioblastomas as my husband died of GBM4 in February 2019, a bit late for him but hopefully one day other people will not have to endure what he did.

  • Rosemary
    8 July 2019

    Sounds like more being done thats good newsfor me maybe

  • Mrs Debbie Wilkins
    8 July 2019

    This is fantastic news! I am one of the rare survivors of a brain tumour aged 16 back in 1981, thanks to my amazing Neurosurgeon Mr Ian Cast, working out of Morriston Hospital. Due to a cold, he couldn’t perform brain surgery but instead treated the tumour through 27 sessions of radiotherapy and I have lived a full happy & healthy life since then.

  • Alun
    8 July 2019

    This such good news and I wish the researchers all success in their quest to beat this cancer. I lost my wife in 2008 to a brain tumour. They operated and removed as much of the tumour as was possible but it was so aggressive that it grew back at an alarming rate which subsequently lead to her sad loss. My best wishes to all concerned. Hope at last?

  • Andrea Boocock
    7 July 2019

    I think this is fantastic as both my parents died from glioblastoma brain tumours, and even though we offered to pay for screening for myself, I was told there wasn’t any and would I really want to know that was my fate !!!!! Hope they make a break through 🙏🏻

  • Nigel Chapman
    7 July 2019

    It’s good to see Brain Tumour research getting more funding.My wife died of a glioblastoma in 2000 when she was 37 and left behind a 5 year old daughter.Research into this type of tumour has been neglected for too long.

  • Emma Giles
    7 July 2019

    This is a really interesting article, and highlights how outdated a lot of the treatments are. As you say nothing has changed in the past 50 years. We lost our 5 year old daughter to DIPG. Will any of this money specifically go into DIPG research as well?

  • reply
    Gabriella Beer
    12 July 2019

    Hi Emma,
    We’re really sorry to hear about your daughter. One of these awards was given to Professor Richard Gilbertson at the University of Cambridge to research children’s brain tumours. His team will be looking at the differences in the biology of normal brain cells and brain tumour samples, including DIPG. The researchers hope the insights they get from the lab will help lead to new treatments for children. The other two projects aren’t studying DIPG specifically but aim to get a deeper understanding of brain tumours overall, which has the potential to improve our understanding of DIPG too. We’re also funding other work into DIPG, like some of Professor Chris Jones’s work at the ICR in London. He’s studying the genes and molecules that may be fuelling the disease. You can read more about his work in these blog posts.
    Best wishes,
    Gabi, Cancer Research UK.

  • Lesley Ross
    7 July 2019

    My husband died from glioblastoma when he was 33 .He left two children 6 and 3 . I really hope and pray that you will learn how to treat this so other people won’t have to go through what I did

  • Theresa Burrells
    7 July 2019

    Good luck to all the scientists and technicians involved in the finding of effective treatments for these devastating cancers. So pleased the funding is coming through for you. May the Gods be with you!

  • Caroline
    6 July 2019

    This is mind-blowingly awesome! I have a benign grade 2 pineocytoma that I have been living with for 17 years. Whilst it is being controlled by radiotherapy, it can’t be eliminated fully because of potential brain damage. This research is the first step on the road of hope for everyone affected by this awful illness. God bless the team and best wishes for you all xx

  • Jill Crookes
    6 July 2019

    This is great news. I lost my brother to glioblastoma. He was 54 years of age. He was diagnosed in August 2012 and died 18 months later, in 2014. It may be too late for him but more research and understanding of the disease will hopefully lead to better, more successful treatments and hopefully a cure one day. Good luck and my thoughts go out to everyone faced with this disease.

  • Rachel Massey
    6 July 2019

    I have a grade 3 AA so I’m over joyed by this news, may not help me but will help others in the future. Thank you

  • Janet Smith
    6 July 2019

    This is great news. My husband died of glioblastoma and my hope is that one day at cure, or at least better treatment options, will be found.

  • Mark Avery
    6 July 2019

    Great news!! And I wish the Scientists the very best of luck!

  • Alan Moore
    6 July 2019

    Wonderfully reassuring news, the more research the more that progress can be made.

  • NICOLA Coleman
    6 July 2019

    That all sounds great. My 10 year old daughter was diagnosed with pylocitic astrocytoma in 2012 and we have been through 2 rounds of chemo, surgery and are about to start proton therapy. She has been through so much if research could prevent other children going through the same it would be amazing.

  • Sue Clark
    5 July 2019

    This is great news. I lost my brother to a glioblastoma last year at the age of 54. He only lived 10 months after his diagnosis and went through so much. He donated his brain for research so I would like to think that he has helped a little in this much needed research. It may be too late for him but hopefully a cure will be found soon and others will have a better chance of survival.