The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Study sheds light on why therapy for devastating brain cancer in kids often fails

  • Print

TORONTO - When a devastating form of brain cancer in kids spreads — and it too often does — treatments are life-changing and often ineffective. A new study is shedding light on why.

The work, led by a scientist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, has found that in medulloblastoma, the small tumours that spread to other parts of the brain and spine aren't genetically like the main tumour from which they came. So treatments that target the main tumour often fail to shut down the secondary cancers, called metastases.

"We've been studying the wrong part of the disease all this time," said Dr. Michael Taylor, a pediatric neurosurgeon and senior scientist at Sick Kids.

"And that explains why a lot of the targeted therapies work in the dish," he continued, referring to the petri dishes used in laboratories.

"In the dish we can cure the disease because we're only studying the primary tumour. But then when we give the drugs to the kids they're not working on the metastases."

The work, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, will be a wake-up call for the research community, said Dr. Poul Sorensen, an expert in the genetics of childhood cancers who is a senior scientist at the B.C. Cancer Research Centre and the University of British Columbia.

"People have always supposed that the primary tumour and the metastatic tumour are quite similar. And so that if you understand the primary tumour you'll know how to treat the secondary tumour. But in fact, this study shows that that's not the case," Sorensen said.

"It's slapping the research community in the face by saying ... we need to focus on the genetic changes, the drivers of metastatic disease, to hope to treat that compartment of the disease."

Medulloblastoma is rare, but tragic. It can be diagnosed at any time, but is most commonly seen in babies and around the age of seven. The Canadian Cancer Society says about 60 children a year are diagnosed with this form of brain cancer in Canada, and about half survive.

But the child who survives is not the child his or her parents knew before the diagnosis. To prevent or slow the spread of secondary tumours, children who've had surgery to remove the primary medulloblastoma undergo high dose radiation. Their entire brains and spinal columns are blasted, with heart-rending results.

Taylor doesn't sugar-coat the effects, saying the radiation can lead to physical deformities and can lower the child's IQ by as many as 30 points. "It's not trivial. We're not going from an A to an A- here."

Nancy Goodman's son, Jacob Froman, was eight when he was diagnosed with the disease. He went from being a happy, active child to one who was incontinent, couldn't speak properly, had cognitive impairment and was wheelchair bound. "After the surgery he was never the same," said Goodman from Washington, D.C., where she lives.

Jacob was not treated at Sick Kids, but Goodman had consulted with Taylor during her son's illness. After he died at age 10, his mother donated tissues from Jacob's cancer to Taylor for his research. Jacob's cancers were among the tissues used for this study, she said.

Goodman started a non-profit organization, Kids v Cancer. One of the programs it runs encourages parents of children with cancer to donate their tissues for research.

"It is something we can do to prevent another family from losing a child the way we did. That Dr. Taylor made the scientific insights that he did based on my son's tissue is just such an achievement," she said.

Taylor's study was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, which applauded the findings.

"Anything we can do to better understand the cancer itself and better treat these kids with more targeted treatments is incredibly worthwhile," said Christine Williams, vice-president for research.

Taylor said the field will now need to look for therapies that work against the secondary tumours. He noted there is already a drug on the market that might be useful and should be tested. If it's found to be effective that would vastly speed up the process of adopting it for use in medulloblastoma.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Key of Bart - The Floodway Connection

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A one day old piglet glances up from his morning feeding at Cedar Lane Farm near Altona.    Standup photo Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press
  • A Great Horned Owl that was caught up in some soccer nets in Shamrock Park in Southdale on November 16th was rehabilitated and returned to the the city park behind Shamrock School and released this afternoon. Sequence of the release. December 4, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What's your take on a report that shows violent crime is decreasing in Winnipeg?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google