Bringing brain cancer into focus

Bringing brain cancer into focus

Illuminate newsletter, June 2017
June 2017

Dr Ruth Mitchell
Dr Ruth Mitchell is combining her clinical and research
skills to improve outcomes for brain cancer patients.

Brain cancer survival rates have not changed in 30 years. Our researchers are hoping to change that.

Over the past three decades, the prognosis for people with many cancers has improved significantly, but unfortunately this is not the case for brain cancer.

Brain cancer causes more deaths in people under the age of 40 than any other cancer, and more deaths in Australian children than any other disease. Only 20 per cent of people with brain cancer survive; this hasn’t changed in 30 years.

Institute researchers are involved in the push to improve outcomes for the 1600 Australians diagnosed with brain cancer each year.

New therapies for the most aggressive cancers

Institute PhD student Dr Ruth Mitchell, a trainee neurosurgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, is combining her clinical and research skills to improve patient outcomes.

Dr Mitchell studies glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer. She is investigating the role of EGFR, a protein that is often overactive and mutated in brain cancer, causing cancers to grow.

“I’ve watched my colleagues working with other cancers find new drugs and approaches, changing the future for their patients, and I want that for my patients.”

“In the past decade new medicines that block EGFR have shown promise for improving the outcomes of people with certain cancers.

“I am hopeful that we’ll find EGFR-blocking medicines and potentially even new combination therapies to treat people with GBM and improve their chances of survival,” Dr Mitchell said.

Dr Mitchell has seen first-hand the devastating impact this cancer has on the lives of her patients and their families.

“I’ve watched my colleagues working with other cancers find new drugs and approaches, changing the future for their patients, and I want that for my patients,” she said.

Dr Misty Jenkins at her microscope
Dr Misty Jenkins and her team are investigating whether
immunotherapy could be used to fight brain cancer.

The immune system fights back

Immunotherapy has become a ‘buzzword’ in cancer treatment, and has been responsible for significant improvements in treating cancers such as melanoma and lung cancers.

Dr Misty Jenkins is investigating whether immunotherapy – treatments that harness the body’s own immune system to fight their cancer – could have the same impact in childhood brain cancer.

“[Brain cancer is] exactly the type of disease that could potentially benefit from immunotherapy.”

“Brain cancer has very high mortality rates, has had no new therapies in decades, and often quickly becomes resistant to the treatments that are available,” Dr Jenkins said. “It’s exactly the type of disease that could potentially benefit from immunotherapy.”

Dr Jenkins and colleague Dr Ryan Cross are investigating one type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s immune cells are isolated, genetically modified to become ‘super killer cells’, and reinfused to fight their cancer.

“We’re looking to tailor immunotherapies to the brain in order to kill tumour cells but with limited inflammation and side effects,” Dr Jenkins said.

“Ultimately, we’d like to contribute our innovation to an area that could have the biggest impact – benefiting sick kids and their families.”

Professor Andreas Strasser
Professor Andreas Strasser is looking at whether targeting
cell death machinery could be effective in treating brain
cancer.

Cell death and brain cancer

Professor Andreas Strasser, Professor Anne Voss, Dr Francine Ke and Dr Kerstin Brinkmann are looking at whether targeting cell death machinery could be effective in treating brain cancers such as medulloblastoma.

Medulloblastoma mainly affects young children, and the only current therapies are highly invasive with very significant side effects.

Professor Strasser said emerging drugs that block the cell survival machinery, developed in collaborations between the Institute and pharmaceutical partners, could be useful.

“Our aim is to develop novel strategies to efficiently kill brain cancer cells without causing intolerable damage to healthy tissues,” he said.

“Little is currently known about the role of cell death in the development of brain cancer and whether targeting it has therapeutic value.

"We are investigating whether recently developed BH3-mimetic therapies, which are already highly successful in other cancers, could be effective for brain cancer,” Professor Strasser said.

Our brain cancer research supporters include the Brain Foundation, Carrie’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, The Jack Brockhoff Foundation and Tour de Cure.

Super Content: 
Media in the lab

Find out about our latest research outcomes and scientific achievements.

Discovery Timeline website screenshot

Explore the Institute's 100 years of discoveries for humanity.

Follow the timelines, meet the people behind the science, and find out how we've changed Australian medical research.