New research points to better treatments for childhood brain cancer

01 February 2012

Dr Michael TaylorFebruary 2012 – New findings from a study funded in part by the Canadian Cancer Society may lead to much improved treatments for a devastating childhood brain cancer.

Dr Michael Taylor and his research team at The Hospital for Sick Children have found that as medulloblastoma spreads (or metastasizes), the metastasized tumours are genetically very different from the primary tumour, but similar to each other.

The finding explains why treatment is not effective for some children once their cancer has spread. The researchers say that now that they know that they are actually treating a single cancer with two distinct genetic profiles, they can develop treatments that will target both the original tumour and the metastasized tumours.

Medulloblastoma is the most common childhood brain cancer and is a tumour that occurs at the back of the brain in the cerebellum. It is primarily a disease of very young children and is particularly deadly among babies under 18 months of age.

The research team also discovered that only a small subset of cells from the primary tumour is able to metastasize to new sites on the brain or spinal cord. Previously, researchers had assumed that medulloblastoma spread as a result of random cell movement.

About 250 Canadian children are diagnosed with various types of brain cancer every year. About 70 per cent of these survive. Brain tumours are the leading cause of childhood cancer deaths. In Canada, about 60 children are diagnosed with medulloblastoma every year and half of these will survive. Many survivors experience serious physical and neurological problems from the disease itself and from the effects of very aggressive treatments on the developing brain.

“These are important findings that will provide hope for children with medulloblastoma and their families,” says Dr Christine Williams, Vice President of Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “This exciting research will lead to different directions in treatment so doctors can find more effective and less toxic ways to treat these children, so this is very promising news.”

The study findings were published online in the prestigious journal Nature.

Read about more Dr Taylor’s research