A team at Glasgow University said they had already identified “promising” drugs which could help patients struck by the deadly cancers.
They have just been awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding to advance their work with the hope of being able to start trials in patients in just a few years.
The work is part of efforts by campaigners to increase research into all the different types of brain tumour, which have so far not received the same attention as other forms of cancer. Around 900 people a year in Scotland are diagnosed with a brain tumour, and they are the biggest cancer killer of people under 40.
The new research, led by Professor Anthony Chalmers, is focusing on a type of brain tumour known as glioblastoma – a particularly aggressive and common form.
The researchers are working on new techniques to allow them to see how and why the cancer cells in these tumours change into an untreatable form, spreading to other parts of the brain.
They will also test drugs currently under development at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow to see whether these are successful in stopping the cells from moving to other tissue.
“This is quite a new way of trying to deal with this disease,” Chalmers said. “Although people have been aware that these tumours are quite invasive, there haven’t been any attempts to try to target that behaviour in terms of treatment.”
He said a major problem was the tumour’s tendency to infiltrate the surrounding brain, which made it impossible for surgeons to remove all the cancerous cells. This increased the risk that tumours would grow back after treatment, sometimes in different parts of the brain.
But by understanding more about what allows the cells to travel through the brain, the researchers believe drugs could be used to stop this invasion. Chalmers said early tests on brain cells with some of the potential drugs had “shown promise” in combating the disease in the lab.
“We have done work with brain tumour cells,” he said. “But the Beatson are also looking at the drugs in a number of other cancer types.
“We know that these cells travel and some of the possible ways they travel, but nobody has ever tested drugs that particularly target that property.”
Chalmers said the team was hopeful that some of the drugs being tested would enter trials in patients within a few years.
“What we would hope to have done within three years would be to demonstrate whether or not this approach is of value, or has potential, and also to have identified one or more drugs that would be candidates for further development towards patients.”
Another part of the project will involve looking at new ways of using MRI scans to see if researchers can measure brain invasion by the tumours.
“One of the reasons that people have not been able to develop drugs to target invasion is because we can’t measure invasion. So you don’t know whether your drug is working or not,” Chalmers said.
“We thought it was important to measure invasion by the tumour so that we can then be confident that the drugs are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
The work has been awarded £200,000 by The Brain Tumour Charity and further funding from a local charity.
Chalmers said compared to other types of cancer, brain tumour research was still underfunded. “One reason is that these cancers are relatively uncommon, but because they are so deadly they have a bigger impact than you would predict just from the numbers involved,” he said.
“Another reason is that because patients often do very badly, there isn’t a group of survivors of that cancer type who have gone on to do lots of fundraising and lobbying in parliament, and so on.
“So if you think about breast cancer, there are a lot of women who are survivors who remain very well and they have the resources to make a big noise and attract a lot of funding. But for brain cancer, that hasn’t been the case.”
Dr Alison Evans, head of research and policy at the Brain Tumour Charity, said: “We are committed to funding world-class pioneering research and are proud to be supporting Professor Chalmers and the team at the University of Glasgow.
“Survival rates for those diagnosed with glioblastoma brain tumours have not improved for 40 years, and this project is at the forefront of changing this disappointing and devastating statistic.”
Case study: Hidden for 10 years
Twenty-six-year old Donna McWhinnie was fit and healthy when she suddenly collapsed in the bathroom in February this year.
Her ordeal started after she woke up at a friend’s house feeling slightly hungover. But then McWhinnie, from Wishaw, went numb down one side, and after a lie down she went to the bathroom and collapsed. Luckily a friend was with her and called for help.
“Apparently I’d had an epileptic fit,” McWhinnie said. “They gave me a CT scan and it showed up a shadow on the left side of my head. They then rushed me to Edinburgh for an MRI scan and that’s when I was told it was a brain tumour.”
She said at first she just laughed as she could not believe what was happening. “When they did the scan and found out the size of it – about half the size of my brain – they said it had been growing for at least ten years.” Doctors diagnosed the cancer glioma.
McWhinnie had intensive radiotherapy for six weeks and now has regular scans to check the tumour is not growing. The first results were promising, showing that the treatment had reduced the pressure on her brain. In future she will need chemotherapy to stop the tumour growing.
In the meantime, she’s been raising thousands of pounds for brain tumour research and spending time with her two-year-old son Taylor. “Taylor has kept me going and he has no clue what is going on,” the single mother said. “I definitely believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger because probably if I wanted to let it beat me, it would. Different people will handle it differently.”