Tumours that arise in brain tissue can strike at any age. More than 360 British Columbians are diagnosed with brain cancer each year and it is the second most common childhood cancer. 

The brain is also a frequent site for the spread of other cancers, such as breast, lung, melanoma and colon.

Outcomes for brain cancer vary significantly depending on the location and size of the tumour, how quickly it grows and how likely it is to spread.

BC Cancer’s neuro-oncology team is at the forefront of brain cancer research and enhancements to treatment and care. Under the leadership of medical oncologist Dr. Brian Thiessen, progress is being made to bring innovative solutions to brain cancer patients and their families.

BrainCare BC is one of the programs initiated by the neuro-oncology tumour group with an aim to improve the lives of those with brain tumours. Focus is on patient care, clinical trials, research, and treatment.

Key priorities include better treatment, better outcomes

In the past several years, BrainCare BC has focused on a number of priority research projects for brain cancer. One such priority involves the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme.

Approximately 80 per cent of malignant brain tumours in adults are gliomas. Gliomas are tumours that can develop in the brain or spinal cord. There are three main types of gliomas. One particularly aggressive type of this cancer is called glioblastoma or glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), which is difficult to treat. The two-year survival rate for GBM is about 30 per cent and the five-year survival rate is reported to be about 10 per cent. Better treatment options are urgently needed.

Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are part of the current standard of care for this disease, but the protocol faces numerous challenges, including the inability of surgeons to completely remove the tumour because it spreads into surrounding normal brain tissue. It is also often difficult to administer chemotherapy because of the blood-brain barrier, a natural, semi-permeable membrane that prevents substances from passing out of the blood stream and into the brain.

Dr. Cathie Garnis, a senior scientist at BC Cancer, and her colleagues Drs. Mohsen Akbari and Brian Toyota, are seeking to develop a biodegradable drug-delivery implant that would be surgically applied to the brain. It would use a specific peptide to attract cancer cells and then eradicate them with chemotherapy.

Another priority research project for the BrainCare BC team is minimally invasive monitoring. Treatment of brain tumours requires consistent monitoring via CT scans, MRIs and other forms of external imaging involving multiple visits to the hospital and injection of contrast agents with potentially dangerous side effects. Dr. Akbari’s team is working to develop new methods of monitoring using thread-based sensors that would be less invasive.

Tissue bank supplies researchers with needed samples

Recent cancer research has proven that most tumours are not homogenous. New drugs and combination therapies are now being developed to target the different tumour components. Dr. Mohsen Akbari’s team is currently exploring the use of 3D models to more accurately mimic the complexity of tumours in order to test the effectiveness of a concurrent dose of two specific drugs for the management of GBM. The ultimate goal of this project is to test the efficacy of new anti-cancer drugs.

Cutting-edge research is underway at BC Cancer and in labs all over the world to develop more effective treatments for brain cancer. Strategies include immunotherapy, stem cell studies, and genetic and molecular manipulations for personalized treatment. All of these approaches require testing with brain tumour tissue.

In order to provide the necessary tissue for research, BrainCare BC was part of a team that established a brain tumour bank in 2011. Since then, it has collected specimens from more than 200 people with the disease. The bank also serves as a repository of brain tumour tissue destined for the Personalized OncoGenomics (POG) program at BC Cancer. The POG program uses genome sequencing to create a virtual library of detailed information about specific aspects of a patient’s cancer for personalized treatment.

Since 2015, the tumour bank has also started to collect selected spinal tumours in collaboration with Vancouver General Hospital’s neuro-spinal group. These specimens are the basis of all local genomic profiling projects and donor support will help with the continued expansion of this tissue bank.           

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