Brain cancer

Brain cancer

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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.
Brain cancer survival rates are low and have barely changed in 30 years. Our research into brain cancer is focused on finding new therapies to improve outcomes for the 1600 Australians diagnosed with brain cancer each year.

Brain cancer research at the Institute

Our researchers are:

  • Defining the changes in brain cells that allow cancer to grow.
  • Working to develop potential new treatments for brain cancer.
  • Testing whether drugs that block cell survival could be effective in treating brain cancers.
  • Investigating whether the body’s own immune system could be employed to fight brain cancer.

What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer is the abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells in the brain.

The brain has many different ‘control centres’ that regulate all of our body functions, from breathing to walking. When the cancer grows it can damage these control centres. Even slow growing (benign) tumours can be serious if they affect a vital area of the brain.

The brain is composed of nerve cells that send messages to and from the body, and supporting cells that enable nerve cells to function. Cancer can originate in many different cell types, giving rise to various forms of brain cancer. 

Research at the Institute focusses on:

  • Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and dangerous form of brain cancer. GBM arises from glial cells that support nerve cell function. Less than five per cent of people with GBM survive for five years or longer.
  • Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), the most aggressive form of brain cancer in children. DIPG arises in the brainstem, a critical part of the brain that controls vital functions like breathing.
  • Medulloblastomas, which arise in the lower back part of the brain and are the most common brain cancer in children.

Brain cancer rarely spreads (metastasises) to other parts of the body, but cancer cells from other organs can spread to the brain.

Symptoms of brain cancer

The symptoms of brain cancer depend on the type of brain cancer, its size and where it is located in the brain.

Common symptoms of brain cancer include headaches, seizures, nausea and vomiting. Depending on the part of the brain affected, people with brain cancer may also experience changes in speech, vision, hearing, balance, memory, mood, muscle tone or sensation.

Risk factors for developing brain cancer

Most cases of brain cancer arise spontaneously and no cause can be identified. Some factors are known to increase a person’s risk of developing brain cancer, including:

  • Ageing
  • Exposure to medical radiation, such as radiotherapy, CT scans or x-rays to the head during treatment for a previous cancer
  • Having close relatives with brain cancer

How is brain cancer treated?

Treatment for brain cancer is challenging because it affects the body’s most vital organ.

Some brain cancers can be safely removed by surgery, however in other cases this cannot be done without damage to normal brain tissue. For example, DIPG cannot be surgically removed because it originates in the brainstem.

Alongside surgery, standard treatments for brain cancer include radiotherapy and chemotherapy to kill rapidly dividing cells. These therapies have significant side effects and are not always effective at killing brain cancer cells. Side effects are a particular concern for children as their brain is still developing.

Institute scientists are involved in finding new therapies for brain cancer that will improve quality of life and survival for people with this disease.

Brain cancer immunotherapy

Our researchers are investigating whether immune cells could be harnessed to fight brain cancer, an approach called ‘immunotherapy’.

Immunotherapy has led to significant advances in treating cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer. Our researchers are now investigating whether immunotherapy could be used to treat childhood DIPG and adult GBM.


Support for people with brain cancer

Institute researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice to individuals. If you have brain cancer or are supporting somebody with this disease, please visit Cure Brain Cancer or the Brain Foundation or consult your medical specialist.

Super Content: 
Carrie Bickmore and Misty Jenkins

Funding from Carrie Bickmore’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer Foundation is helping to advance immunotherapy treatments

Microscopy image

An overview of the Institute's latest brain cancer research

Alignment of crystal structures for Bcl-2 family proteins

Collaborative research has led to a new compound that blocks a protein linked to poor responses to treatment in cancer patients

Researcher and donor

Dr Ruth Mitchell's research into better treatments for brain cancer has been boosted by a grant from the Brain Foundation.

Our researchers have discovered a promising strategy for treating cancers that are caused by one of the most common cancer-causing changes in cells.