Milton Keynes-funded scientists claim major breakthrough tackling child cancer cases

Scientists believe they have found a way to tackle one of the most common forms of brain tumours among children.

Monday, 12th April 2021, 11:48 am

Scientists claim to have found a new way to starve cancerous brain tumour cells of energy in order to prevent further growth.

The findings by Professor Silvia Marino and her team at the Centre of Excellence at Queen Mary University of London, funded by Shenley Wood charity, Brain Tumour Research, could see a breakthrough in the way that children with brain tumours are treated in future.

The research refers to Medulloblastoma, the most common high-grade brain tumour in children. Each year, some 70 children are diagnosed with this in the UK, the survival rate is 70% for those whose tumour has not spread but it is almost always fatal in cases where it recurs.

Professor Marino in action

Professor Marino from Queen Mary University of London said: “We have identified a novel way that grade four medulloblastoma is able to adapt its metabolism and grow uncontrollably. Significantly, we have also shown how this energy supply can be blocked. These exciting results bring hope of developing new targeted treatments for patients with this aggressive paediatric brain tumour.”

A famous example of this tumour and its devastating effects, involved Ashya King from Milton Keynes. Ashya was five when he was diagnosed with an aggressive medulloblastoma and underwent surgery in July 2014 to remove the tumour.

His parents sparked a manhunt by taking him out of hospital without doctors’ consent to have proton beam therapy (an advanced form of radiotherapy) abroad, then unavailable in the UK. Ashya is now cancer-free, but is profoundly disabled, having developed a condition known as posterior fossa syndrome from his surgery, and faces many future battles.

Professor Marino added more technical analysis of the challenges facing scientists trying to combat these tumours, adding: “Medulloblastoma occurs in four distinct subgroups (WNT, SHH, G3 and G4). Despite our growing knowledge of the molecular differences between these subgroups, current options are surgery together with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy for all patients. We desperately need to understand the key molecular events driving tumour growth in each subgroup to design new, less toxic, targeted treatments.”

One of the microscopes used by the Brain Tumour Research team

The team has shown that high levels of BMI1 enable the cancer cells to adapt their metabolism and grow aggressively. This change can be reversed by treating the cells with inositol hexaphosphate (IP6). The team also showed that when IP6 was combined with chemotherapy – in this case cisplatin – they observed an increased ability to kill the tumour cells.

Hugh Adams, head of stakeholder relations at Brain Tumour Research said: “These very exciting results reveal a new way for epigenetics to control metabolism within tumour cells. Clinical trials are now required to test the ability of combining IP6 with chemotherapy to treat G4 medulloblastoma, offering promise to a particularly vulnerable group of patients.

“It is great news and brings some much-needed hope for the future. There is still some way to go but we hope that a clinical trial could be up and running in as little as two years.

“Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 yet, historically, just 1% of the national cancer spend has been allocated to this devastating disease. Brain Tumour Research is determined to change this.”

Peter Gardiner, from Aston Clinton, near Aylesbury, lost his 13-year-old son to medulloblastoma in November 2017. Next month, May, marks six years since his diagnosis, he said: “I can only describe our experience as a long hell. Firstly, Ollie was diagnosed, then he went through surgery and extensive treatment. When we were told there were no further options for him in the UK, we crowdfunded £500,000 so he could have immunotherapy in Germany. It was our only hope and, sadly, it didn’t work."

Ollie’s family generously donated £187,000 of the residue of their fundraising to Brain Tumour Research which is funding post-doctoral researcher Sara Badodi who works alongside Proffessor Marino.

Pete said: “We were overwhelmed by the support of friends, family and strangers who stood by us in our hour of need and came together to help us do the very best we could for our son. It means the world to think that, because of him and the love people showed to us, others might not have to go through what we did.”