Message in a brain cell: $7.4M award to decode cues that spur children’s brain tumors

Brain tumor researchers will use an advanced sequencing technology developed at the Stanford University School of Medicine to decode the messages or signals that help brain tumors grow, in the hope of finding new ways to treat the disease in children.

Stanford’s sequencing technology, called STARmap, will be used by researchers to build a functional map of the developing brain allowing the team to analyse all cells in unprecedented detail, which could reveal new drug targets for brain tumors.

The work, led by Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, is part of an international collaboration supported by a $7.4 million Brain Tumor Award from Cancer Research UK – the world’s largest independent funder of cancer research.

Just last year, around 2,200 children in the United States were diagnosed with brain tumors and survival remains tragically low*.

Brain tumors are one of the hardest types of cancer to treat, because not enough is known about what starts and drives the disease, and current treatments are not effective enough.

Children’s brain tumors tend to appear at specific times and places, which scientists think are linked to steps in normal brain development, unlike most cancers in adults, which are a result of an accumulation of genetic damage in cells over time.

The Stanford team aims to understand how cells in developing brains ‘talk’ to their neighbors and through this, determine which signals drive cancer growth.

To do this, the team will use STARmap, which analyses the inner workings of cells, to generate detailed 3D maps of developing brains of humans and mice, and of brain tumors.

STARmap will not only chart the physical location of cells in the developing brain, but also reveal how the cells behave. For example, the team will determine which genes are active and what proteins they are making, and what signals they send to the cells around them.

This is important because sometimes during brain development, the messages that tell healthy brain cells that it’s time to multiply and create new connections are also taken up by cancer and help it spread.

By comparing the cancer maps with those of healthy brains, researchers will be able to decode which signals and mechanisms are hijacked by cancer, which could lead to the discovery of drug targets that will be exclusive to the brain tumour cells.

The international team are one of three to have been awarded a combined total of $23 million. Cancer Research UK established these Awards to advance our understanding of brain tumors and how they develop; a crucial step for overcoming the unique challenges of brain tumours and design more effective, kinder treatments.

“We’re grateful for the support of Cancer Research UK and excited about the work that this grant will enable,” Monje said.

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Notes to editors

*Based on the estimated number of new cases of brain and central nervous system tumours (C70-C72) in children (aged 0-14 years old) in United States of America in 2018. Accessed from IARC.

About Cancer Research UK

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Media Contact
Daimona Kounde
daimona.kounde@cancer.org.uk

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