New Research Gives Hope to Children with Most Common Types of Brain Tumours
by Sue McKechnie, CKN Childhood Cancer Advocacy Co-Editor
Evie was diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was 6 months old. After 3 straight years of chemotherapy, her tumour looked stable enough to stop treatment. After being treatment free for 17 months, an MRI showed that her tumour was growing.
Evie started a new protocol of chemotherapy in early May.
The startling fact is that she is not alone. Hundreds of children are diagnosed with a brain tumour every year joining the thousands that are already in treatment, many for most of their childhood.
Even more startling is the fact that brain tumours are the number one cause of cancer related death in children.
Many of us who have walked the path of childhood cancer and work hard at raising money for this cause, often wonder if there is any progress in research and therefore better treatments and outcomes for these kids who spend much of their childhood in and out of the hospital.
The short answer is yes, research is moving faster than ever and the last decade has shown some amazing discoveries that have given scientists and doctors a better understanding of not only the cellular make up of brain tumours, but how they respond to various treatments.
Two current research projects at the laboratories inside the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre (BTRC) in Toronto show great promise and are only a sample of the many projects underway that hope to change treatment protocols to be more patient specific, individualizing care for better outcomes.
One study is targeted at one of the most common types of childhood brain tumours, the low grade glioma (LGG).
Dr. Christian Smith, Operations Manager at the BTRC explains: “An LGG tumour behaves erratically, some cancers progress regardless of therapy while others spontaneously stop growing. Currently the treatment protocol for children with this type of tumour is exactly the same due to the lack of ability to differentiate between the subgroups.”
The research study led by Dr. Uri Tabori, is currently underway and plans to screen 500 LGGs using a clinically proven technique which could be used in most laboratories worldwide. Dr. Smith tells us that this unique information will allow them to see which of these tumours will stop progressing and therefore may not require therapy and which will progress and potentially cause the patient’s death. He adds: “clinical trials that involve specific drugs targeting most of these mutations, led by Dr. Eric Bouffet, the Head of the Neuro-Oncology Program at SickKids, will enable us to treat these patients with rational therapy in real time. This study, the first of its kind, will enable us to perform patient specific management and prevent tumour progression in an era of individualized medicine.”
Research into medulloblastoma, also one of the most commonly diagnosed types of brain tumour in children, has shown significant promise as well.
Several years ago a research project from the lab of Dr. Michael Taylor, inside the BTRC, analyzed the genetics of over 1000 medulloblastoma tissue samples, an extremely ambitious study at the time. However the results led to the discovery that this deadly tumour type can actually be broken down into four different subgroups each with significant clinical differences and consequently each with unique responses to treatment. This discovery is now widely accepted and has been leveraged to acquire major government funding. More significant though is that it is poised to change the global treatment paradigm for all children diagnosed with medulloblastoma in the future.
The sad reality is that childhood brain tumour research is grossly underfunded. Only a very small percentage of the country’s cancer research dollars reach those labs dedicated to not only a better understanding of these tumours that invade the developing brains of children, but to better treatment options that are optimized for their complex, growing bodies.
Kristine Laplante knows the importance of research into paediatric brain tumours as 5 year old Evie continues treatment to slow the progression of her hypothalamic optic glioma. “I have hope that the research being done will help treat my precious little one and that I will have the honour to continue to watch her grow. Evie’s cancer has taken much away from her, but it has not taken away her joy and happiness, her courage and strength. She is full of love and giggles.”
The Brain Tumour Research Centre inside of SickKids hospital is the only laboratory in Canada dedicated to paediatric brain tumour investigation and is considered the top research facility of its kind worldwide. Grassroots funding is required to help these investigators take an idea to the level where they can then apply for government funding; without it there would be no funding to support other new project ideas like the two studies discussed above.
The above research studies along with 7 other projects are solely funded by Meagan’s Walk: Creating a Circle of Hope, a volunteer run, non-profit organization that has raised over $4 million for paediatric brain tumour research at the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre. For further information about supporting the BTRC through Meagan’s Walk please visit meaganswalk.com.
Sue McKechnie learned her young son, Shawn had a brain tumour in May of 2006. When he passed away 18 months later after the rollercoaster of diagnosis, treatment, hope and terminal illness, she realized that even though he was gone from this world, he continued to send her courage from another. The message was clear – get out there and help other families sharing this journey. Since then Sue has written the book ‘A Sippy Cup of Chemo; A Family’s Journey Through Childhood Cancer’ hoping to spread the message to other bereaved families that they are not alone. All the proceeds from her book are donated to Meagan’s Walk; benefitting research at the Brain Tumour Research Centre inside SickKids. In 2015 she decided to change careers and devote herself to being a full time advocate for funding and awareness of childhood brain tumours through her work with Meagan’s Walk & Hug.