Researchers are one step closer to beating a rare form of brain cancer fatal to children. Based at the University of Calgary and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Dr. Aru Narendran and his team developed a process to grow atypical teratoid/rhaboid tumours in petri dishes using a small amount of brain fluid from an affected child. Less than 10 per cent of children with AT/RT survive.
Narendran's team has been working on the project for six years and designed the new method. Previously, research on the cancer was attempted by growing tumours dry petri dishes, but AT/RT does not grow normally outside the human body. Narendran explained that unknown properties of the tumour fool the body into supporting its growth.
"We decided to add the brain fluid, where the tumours are found, to the culture medium," said Narendran. "We noticed them living and multiplying in the petri dish. We ended up identifying one of the growth factors as IGF-I/II hormones, which stimulate and maintain the metabolic activity of the cells."
The cells allowed Narendran and his team to develop drugs like AEW-541, which target cell growth. It resulted in a culture of AT/RT cells dying.
"It seems like the drug blocks a receptor, which prevents the cell from growing," said Narendran.
However, he warned that more research has to be done on the cells, along with scientific and ethical evaluations, before a human study can start. Cell samples were provided to different labs around the world so researchers could take a look at other aspects of the tumour.
"It is still a long way from using the finding to treat patients, due to factors such as drug toxicity that have to be evaluated," said Narendran. "But we hope small steps like that will help us to understand the biology of this cancer and will enable us to identify clinically effective treatment for all of the kids."
He thanked the team, supported by parents, other doctors and dedicated students who spent long hours doing the experiments. The findings were published July 24 in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology.
Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta CEO Christine Wandzura was pleased with the discovery, explaining that it made an otherwise rare cancer cell suddenly available.
"For the first time ever, scientists are able to study this cancer, so we hope to see further developments into the chemotherapeutic agents that will help destroy the cancer cells while limiting the long-term effects to the affected children," said Wandzura.
The Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta funded Narendran's research with approximately $300,000 and an establishment award. The award allows a newly recruited researcher to build their lab from scratch and pay a lab aid's salary.
"Dr. Narendran's project was provided funding though our annual research competition, which uses a peer-reviewed process, which determines which projects are the most deserving and promising for cancer research," said Wandzura. "Many more young people are surviving cancer than ever before and that's because of research."
She added the new discovery would provide the children suffering from the disease and their parents with hope, even if a cure is not available yet.
"In the future, once the right drugs have been developed through trials, this may provide a cure and a cure is what every parent wants for their children," said Wandzura. "When you are diagnosed with a serious illness, sometimes hope is all you have and you look for it in every place."