'Dream team' looks to stem cells for better brain tumour treatments
The image depicts a 3D rendering of the brain, with the cancer detectable on magnetic resonance Imaging (MRI) in red and yellow. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Laboratory for Radiological Optics and the Montreal Neurological Institute)
TORONTO -- A "dream team" of top Canadian scientists has been named to mount a new attack on aggressive brain cancers in children and adults by focusing on the stem cells that spur their growth.
Dr. Peter Dirks, a neurosurgeon and researcher at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, will head the Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) team, which will employ genomic and molecular profiling technologies to analyze brain cancer stem cells.
"Brain tumours in children and adults contain a small number of cells called stem cells that resist treatment and continually regenerate, driving tumour growth and recurrence after initial responses to treatment," said Dirks, the first scientist to identify cancer stem cells in brain tumours in 2003.
"Our team will conduct multiple analyses of brain cancer stem cells, profiling their biological makeup to identify drugs that are likely to block the uncontrolled growth of the tumours, and carry out clinical trials across Canada to find the safest and most effective drugs to treat these cancers," he said in a statement Thursday.
The researchers will focus on two types of brain tumours: glioblastomas in adults and children, and posterior fossa ependymomas in infants, both of which have limited treatment options and poor survival statistics. Less than 10 per cent of adults live five years following a glioblastoma diagnosis. Malignancies of the brain and central nervous system are the No. 1 cancer killers of children.
Brain tumour stem cells are similar to nerve stem cells that mature during normal brain development. However, abnormal programming in these cancer stem cells promotes tumour recurrence and drug resistance.
"It's like a Peter Pan syndrome, in which the immature cell, the stem cell, never grows up," said Dr. Michael Taylor, a neurosurgeon and scientist at SickKids who specializes in cancer genomics. "Our objective is to take those cancer stem cells and convince them to quit multiplying and leave the rest of the brain alone."
Their objective is to understand the abnormalities in the cancer stem cells, with the goal of developing drugs to effectively attack their vulnerabilities.
The 12-member team has received $11.7 million in grants over four years from a consortium of funding organizations, including SU2C Canada, Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
It is the second dream team announced by SU2C Canada. The first was a collaboration of top researchers formed last year to investigate new treatments for different kinds of breast cancer.