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Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer

NCRI Conference 2016 – Day 1

by Elise O'Kelly

The UK National Cancer Research Institute organises an annual conference where the lead cancer researchers within the UK come together to share their research findings and discuss potential collaborations. Although there are relatively few presentations on brain tumour research, which reflects the amount of research in this area that is being carried out in the UK, a lot of the basic research could have implications for our understanding of brain tumours and the development of future therapies.

The conference started yesterday with an opening presentation by Prof Charles Rudin from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, Philadelphia, explaining how cancer cells can change to become resistant to chemotherapy. He has carried out research on lung cancer and noticed that while certain tumours respond very well to existing drug therapy, they recur after six to nine months and are now resistant to the drug therapies. This can also happen with certain forms of brain tumour and it is important to discover what changes have occurred so that we can make the treatment more effective.

He took samples of the primary tumours which responded to chemotherapy and the secondary tumours which had developed resistance to the action of the cancer drugs. He then compared the genes in both tumours and identified specific ones which may be responsible for the change. One particular gene, called schlafen11, plays a key role and changing its expression in the secondary tumour cells made them sensitive to chemotherapy again. His research group are now trying to understand how this gene works and whether we may be able to develop drugs to influence it. These results may, in turn, help identify new targets for recurrent brain tumours which are less responsive to chemotherapy.

One of the challenges in treating brain cancer is to prevent the tumour cells from dividing and spreading into healthy brain tissue. Dr Iain Hagen from CRUK Manchester Institute has carried out key research in yeast to investigate what happens within a cell when it divides. While yeast might initially appear to be very different to brain tumour cells, they use very similar biochemical mechanisms which can tell us a lot about what happens within a cancer cell.

The initial work in this area was carried out by Sir Tim Hunt in the 1980s using sea urchins. He was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering research into how cells divide and how we may be able to halt this. New chemical compounds are being developed which may be able to prevent cancer cells from dividing, although this research is still at a relatively early stage.

The day finished with a debate on whether we should focus on repurposing existing drugs for the treatment of cancer or invest billions into the development of new drugs. This was a lively discussion, with researchers having very different opinions on the way forward.

There was a lot of support for making better use of the drugs that are already available, considering that we know a lot about how they work, the doses that could be used and the potential side effects. Although the debate focused on breast cancer, it reflected the situation with the development of drugs to treat brain tumours. The repurposing of existing drugs is a promising pathway for new drug treatments and research carried out by Prof Geoff Pilkington at our Portsmouth Centre of Excellence already shown potential of some existing drugs in the future treatment of brain tumours.

Although the research is still at an early stage, it has identified new pathways for the development of new therapies. At the end of the debate, the consensus was that we need a dual-pronged approach. While the development of new drugs is expensive and may take a number of years – but could deliver some more effective therapies – research into the repurposing of existing drugs could have significant benefits for people with brain tumours in the shorter term.

During the day, there was a presentation on “Science and the media”. Brain tumours were highlighted as being one of the types of cancer which was getting more media coverage than other tumour types which have a similar incidence rate. This highlights the fact that Brain Tumour Research continues to ‘punch above its weight’ in making the public aware of brain tumours, the lack of research funding and the impact of our res

Dr. Kieran Breen — Director of Research