Trinity cancer research discovery leads to clinical trial in childhood cancer

A vital discovery by Trinity College researchers in a form of cancer common in children, has led to the announcement that the Boston-based biopharmaceutical company C4 Therapeutics plan to begin clinical trials in 2021.

The original discovery in synovial sarcoma; a form of soft tissue cancer that is common in children, was made in 2018, and the recent clinical trials announcement is being made by Trinity researchers to mark Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (September) and the start of Cancer Week Ireland today (Monday, 28th September 2020).

The research, led by Dr Gerard Brien discovered an ‘Achilles heel’ in synovial tumours, which provided an opportunity to develop new treatment approaches. Better treatments for these tumours are essential since around 60% of patients diagnosed with synovial sarcoma die from their disease. A figure that hasn’t improved for years.

Dr. Brien’s research team focuses on difficult to treat childhood cancers, like synovial sarcoma. Many childhood cancers have been under studied compared to more common adult diseases, such as prostate or breast cancer. This means that our ability to treat many childhood diseases has not improved at the same rate seen in common adult cancers. As a result, patient survival rates in many of these cancers have not seen significant improvements for years and even decades.

Dr. Brien, who trained in childhood cancer research at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Harvard Medical School in Boston, explains that recent technological advances are transforming our ability to understand cancer. His lab uses cutting edge genomics technologies to study cancer cells. Dr. Brien and his team are making important new discoveries about cancer biology allowing them to understand the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a cancer cell. In turn his team are using these insights to figure out ways to disrupt cancer biology In other words; develop new treatment approaches to tackle these cancers.

The team discovered that the BRD9 gene is essential for synovial sarcoma tumour growth. Having found this, his team wanted to develop new drugs to target BRD9 – a gene that we know very little about other than it is essential for the growth of synovial sarcoma tumours. The team was successful in these efforts, developing drugs that tricked cancer cells into shutting off BRD9 and blocking the growth of synovial sarcoma tumours in pre-clinical testing.

Motivated by these discoveries a Boston based biopharmaceutical company C4 Therapeutics has pursued BRD9 targeting in synovial sarcoma and recently announced plans to start a clinical trial in 2021.

Dr. Gerard Brien, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Genetics, Trinity College said:

” It is incredibly motivating to see our work reaching patients so quickly as it often takes many years for laboratory-based research findings to have any tangible impact on patients. This is a super exciting time and we’re all crossing our fingers these trials are successful.”

Dr. Brien is continuing to discover new ways to tackle difficult to treat childhood cancers. In research supported by Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Cancer Society he has found several new drug targets and is testing new approaches to treat several different childhood cancers.

He said:

“We’re pretty excited by what we’ve found so far. We’ve made some important discoveries and have several new approaches in testing. The new Trinity St. James Cancer Institute is essential to integrate the laboratory and clinical sides of cancer research in Ireland. I certainly hope that building collaborative relationships within TSJCI will provide a basis for establishing future clinical trials here in Ireland.”

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