A groundbreaking research programme aims to beat childhood brain tumours. The £4 million study, co-funded by grants from Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, the Brain Tumour Charity and Children with Cancer UK, will look at new ways to treat some of the deadliest brain tumours affecting children.
Teams from the UCL Institute of Child Health and the Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR) will use cutting-edge screening techniques to identify critical genetic and biochemical features of aggressive brain tumours in young patients.
The ultimate aim is to assign patients to different clinical trials according to the genetic make-up of their tumour, developing new drugs that will target the specific mutations found in each tumour.
The researchers at the ICH and the ICR will work in tandem with a team at Newcastle University under the umbrella of INSTINCT, a network which brings together the work of leading scientists and clinicians in the field of high-risk paediatric brain cancer.
The aim of INSTINCT is to ensure that paediatric brain tumour research studies translate as quickly and effectively as possible into new treatments.
Between them, the clinical centres working with INSTINCT in Newcastle and London treat more than one in three young brain tumour patients in the UK.
Dr Darren Hargrave, who is leading the research strand at the UCL Institute of Child Health, says the INSTINCT team hopes ultimately to analyse tumour samples from every patient treated in one of its clinical centres and tailor their treatments accordingly.
“Our first aim is to improve survival rates among children with high-risk brain tumours,” Dr Hargrave says.
At the same time, the researchers hope it may be possible to reduce the amount of potentially damaging drug therapy offered to children with tumours that are identified as less dangerous.The ICH team will examine the genetics of some of the rarest and most deadly tumours such as ETANTR (embryonal tumour with abundant neuropil and true rosettes).
The ICR project, led by Dr Chris Jones, will focus on two types of paediatric brain tumour – high-grade glioma (HGG), which is fatal in most cases, and diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), which almost no child survives.
Currently, there is no recognised effective treatment for either type of tumour.
“For HGG, children are usually given the same treatment as adults – and in adults, there is a group of patients who do get some benefit. But in children that’s not really the case,” explains Dr Jones, leader of the glioma team at the ICR.
“For DIPG, there is not really a standard of care. Radiation might shrink the tumour for a couple of months, but then it comes back even stronger.
“This is part of a huge drive to understand these tumours better. They really are completely different biologically from similar tumours which arise in adults.”
The Newcastle scientists will focus on a type of fast-growing tumour known as medulloblastoma.
The INSTINCT research project is part of an overall £10 million investment in UK brain tumour research, funded by £5 million from the Brain Tumour Charity and £5 million in matching grants.
Neil Dickson, vice-chair of The Brain Tumour Charity, described the investment as a major milestone in brain tumour research.
“We are absolutely delighted that The Brain Tumour Charity has been able to award funding for these research projects, which we hope will bring about much-needed improvements in the understanding and treatment of brain tumours.
“This level of spending on brain tumour research is unprecedented in the UK. It has been made possible by our dedicated supporters and fundraisers around the country, many of whom have personal experience of the devastating effects of a brain tumour.”
The Haematology and Oncology department at Great Ormond Street Hospital operates as a unified cancer centre with University College Hospital London. Together we form the largest paediatric/adolescent oncology centre in Europe. This collaboration enables excellent patient care and an efficient and effective transition of patients between services and treatments.
The service treats approximately 450 international patients each year in the UK and through a partnership with Kuwait Ministry of Health works collaboratively with the clinical team at NBK Hospital to design and deliver a programme that develops and enhances services for children and young people with cancer.