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National brain tumour research funding needs to increase to £30-35 million a year

2021 – a great year for our brain tumour research centres

For the final research update of the year this week we are focusing on an amazing year at our dedicated research centres and reviewing 2021 through that lens.

Earlier in the year, our Centre of Excellence at the University of Plymouth published papers on how a research breakthrough could spare patients surgery and highlighting the importance of personalised medicine in developing more effective, targeted treatments for the nervous system disorder neurofibromatosis (NF).

This week comes news that drugs developed to treat AIDS and HIV could offer hope to patients diagnosed with the most common form of primary brain tumour.

Plymouth researchers have shown previously that a tumour suppressor, named Merlin, contributes to the development of meningioma, acoustic neuroma and ependymoma tumours. It can also contribute to neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2). Tumour suppressor genes play important roles in normal cells by controlling division or repairing errors in DNA. However, when tumour suppressors do not work properly or are absent, cells can grow out of control, leading to cancer.

In this latest study Dr Sylwia Ammoun, Senior Research Fellow, and her collaborator, Dr Robert Belshaw, at the Brain Tumour Research Centre which is directed by Professor Oliver Hanemann and which provided access to the lab, equipment and NF2 expertise,  investigated the role that specific sections of our DNA play in tumour development. Named ‘endogenous retrovirus HERV-K’, these sections of DNA are relics of ancient infections that affected our primate ancestors, which have become stable elements of human DNA.

Prof Oliver Hanemann said: “High levels of proteins produced by HERV-K DNA have previously been linked to the development of different tumours. In this study, the team showed that high levels of HERV-K proteins were present in meningioma and schwannoma cells obtained from patients. The team was also able to identify molecular events that may enable HERV-K proteins to stimulate the growth of these tumours. Furthermore, several drugs were identified that target these proteins, reducing the growth of schwannoma and grade I meningioma cells in the laboratory. Significantly, these drugs - the retroviral protease inhibitors ritonavir, atazanavir, and lopinavir - have already been approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of HIV/AIDS in the USA and are also available in the UK. These results revealed HERV-K proteins to be critical regulators of growth in tumours that are deficient in Merlin.”

The full Plymouth paper can be viewed in Cancer Research

BRAIN UK at the University of Southampton is the world’s first national virtual brain tissue bank, a unique and hugely important resource for researchers working across the UK, funded by Brain Tumour Research.

The team leading BRAIN UK has recently had a paper published online in the journal Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology. The paper’s abstract explains that the purpose of BRAIN UK (the UK BRain Archive Information Network) is to make the very extensive and comprehensive National Health Service (NHS) Neuropathology archives available to the national and international neuroscience research community.

The archives comprise samples of tumours and a wide range of other neurological disorders, not only from the brain but also spinal cord, peripheral nerve, muscle, eye and other organs when relevant. BRAIN UK was founded after the recognition of the importance of this large tissue resource, which was not previously readily accessible for research use. BRAIN UK has successfully engaged the majority of the regional clinical neuroscience centres in the United Kingdom to produce a centralised database of the extensive autopsy and biopsy archive. Together with a simple application process and its broad ethical approval, BRAIN UK offers researchers easy access to most of the national archives of neurological tissues and tumours ( http://www.brain-uk.org). The range of tissues available reflects the spectrum of disease in society, including many conditions not covered by disease-specific brain banks, and allows relatively large numbers of cases of uncommon conditions to be studied. BRAIN UK has supported 141 studies (2010-2020) that have generated 70 publications employing methodology as diverse as morphometrics, genetics, proteomics and methylomics. Tissue samples that would otherwise have been unused have supported valuable neuroscience research. The importance of this unique resource will only increase as molecular techniques applicable to human tissues continue to develop and technical advances permit large-scale high-throughput studies.

You can explore the work we fund at BRAIN UK more fully in this article from neuropathology and applied neurobiology

The team at the Brain Tumour Research Centre at Imperial College has welcomed a new researcher funded by the charity.

Dr Sophie Morse received her PhD in Bioengineering from Imperial College in 2020. With her research, she has improved the way drugs are delivered to the brain using a non-invasive and targeted ultrasound technology combined with microbubbles. Now being funded by Brain Tumour Research, she will apply this ultrasound technique to the field of brain sciences, specifically to brain tumours.

Sophie has won numerous awards for her work, including the Gold Medal in Engineering at the STEM for Britain event in the UK Parliament, Young Investigator Awards from the British and European Ultrasound Societies, and the William James Award from the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Focused ultrasound is an exciting area of brain tumour research, offering a targeted, less-invasive way to cross the blood brain barrier for more effective drug delivery to the brain. This research, which could improve outcomes and treatments, brings hope to brain tumour patients and their loved ones.

Earlier this year from Imperial there was news of a clinical study into non-invasive surgical techniques and there is real excitement about a paper to be published early in 2022.

We will provide a link to the full paper in the new year.

It has been an extraordinary year at the Brain Tumour Research Centre at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) with funding announcements into paediatric brain tumour research being made in May, August and just last week Ali’s Dream, a founding Member Charity of Brain Tumour Research, announced it is to grant £250,000 to support research into childhood brain tumours.

Funding means new team members which means we will be able to bring you more stories like this one as our scientists have found a new way to starve cancerous brain tumour cells of energy in order to prevent further growth and that this could see a breakthrough in the way that children with medulloblastoma are treated in future.

In the adult GBM space there was also news this year and just last month a significant GBM breakthrough was reported and covered widely in the media.

We asked Principal Investigator at QMUL Professor Silvia Marino for her thoughts as we conclude the final research update of the year and she told us:

“I think that 2021 is the year that the centre model as proposed by Brain Tumour Research, which has brought both stability and sustainability to my team at QMUL, has really started to deliver results. I have been able to grow the team and I am really excited by the talented researchers we have been able to attract into this uniquely complex field. Last months’ GBM paper was a real breakthrough of which we are all proud and determined to see through to a trial stage. This gives me grounds for great optimism – it wasn’t always like this – but as we approach 2022 I feel we can really move the dial and improve options and outcomes for brain tumour patients. With creative fundraisers and dedicated campaigners supporting gifted and innovative scientists the only way is forward for Brain Tumour Research and brain tumour researchers.”

My first research update of 2022 will be emailed out on Friday 7th January and if you would like that sent directly to your inbox please let me know – hugh@braintumourresearch.org

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