New research into drugs which could prevent the return of persistent brain tumours in children has won vital funding from two major brain tumour charities.
The pioneering work in this historically underfunded area is being carried out at the Children's Brain Tumour Research Centre at The University of Nottingham, one of the centres of excellence in Europe.
The new research has been jointly funded by the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust and the Joseph Foote Charitable Trust, both charities set up by families who have lost children to the disease.
The scientists will be investigating 'ependymoma', a tumour type from which less than half of the children diagnosed will survive. It's a type that usually affects children, and develops from the cells lining the fluid-filled spaces in the brain called ventricles. Even after surgical removal combined with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, this type of cancer tends to return in a therapy-resistant form in up to half of the cases.
Normal, healthy cells use 'tumour suppressor genes' to help control their growth. But in certain ependymoma cells, some of these genes are de-activated by proteins called 'histone deacetylases', allowing the cells to grow and multiply in an uncontrolled way.
The team is investigating a group of drugs called 'histone deacetylase inhibitors' (HDACi) which are designed to re-activate the body's natural defence mechanisms against brain cancer. Previous work by the group in the lab shows that the HDACi 'Trichostatin A' causes most ependymoma cells to grow more slowly and eventually die. One HDACi is currently being trialled in the treatment of adult patients with another type of brain tumour, 'glioblastoma multiforme'.
Leading the research, Professor Richard Grundy, said: "This is vital funding which will make a real difference to our work. It is hoped that this research will lead to a better understanding of the biology of the cancer cells that return following initial treatment, and of the factors responsible for their resistance to therapy. This could lead to new ways to predict how these tumours will behave, and how ependymoma cells can be targeted and destroyed by new cancer drugs."
Paul Carbury, CEO of the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust, said: "We are proud to be working with the Joseph Foote Charitable Trust to offer funding that will facilitate this vital research. The fact that this new project was selected through our accredited competitive peer review process shows that it is especially deserving of our support. We're optimistic that it will directly lead to the development of a new and effective treatment that will improve patients' outlooks and could save lives."
Andy Foote of the Joseph Foote Charitable Trust added: "Our organisation was set up to fund research just like this, as it was an ependymoma that led to the tragic loss of our son, Joseph. Both the SDBTT and the JFCT have a strong track record of funding research, including previous work at The University of Nottingham, and it is our constant hope that partnerships such as this will produce results which will give cause for optimism for anyone whose lives are affected by brain cancer."
Out of the £420m spent on cancer research in the UK, less than 1% is spent on brain tumour research.
6,500 people are diagnosed each year with a primary brain tumour. 3,400 people lose their lives to a brain tumour each year.
Despite being the biggest childhood cancer killer and causing more deaths among the under 40s than any other cancer, statistics show that brain cancer has received a fraction of the funding of higher profile cancers.
Statistics also show that high profile cancers have received up to 20 times the investment of brain cancer and have seen survival rates almost double in 30 years.
Often dubbed the 'forgotten cancer', the UK's brain cancer survival rates have barely changed in 30 years whereas other cancer types have seen clear improvements.
The average years of life lost (calculated from the shortening of life attributable to brain cancer, compared to life expectancy) to brain tumours is the highest of any cancer at over 20 years and is the biggest killer of adults under 40.