Children with medulloblastoma, (a type of malignant brain tumour), undergo extensive and debilitating treatment, which has led to marked improvements in survival rates over recent decades. Despite this, these tumours will return in a proportion of patients following treatment (termed relapse), and the vast majority of these will succumb to their disease. Now a new study, funded by children's charity Action Medical Research, is hoping to find ways to prevent relapse and save children's lives.
Dr Rebecca Hill has been granted a Research Training Fellowship of £204,861 to fund her three-year research project to search for ways to prevent relapse and discover better treatments for medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumour of childhood.
She said: "Through Action Medical Research's funding, we are now able to advance our understanding of relapsed medulloblastoma and improve the lives of children with this devastating diagnosis."
Around one in every ten children who die from cancer in the UK has a brain tumour called a medulloblastoma. After first diagnosis, a gruelling treatment regime can save children's lives.
"Almost all children who are diagnosed with medulloblastoma undergo intensive treatment for 8 to 12 months, which consists of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy," explains Dr Hill, from the Northern Institute of Cancer Research, at Newcastle University.
Sadly, though, around 30 to 40 per cent of treated children and their families go on to face the devastating news that their disease has come back- relapsed. , Most of these children die.
"The overwhelming majority - more than 90 per cent - of children with relapsed disease go on to lose their lives," explains Dr Hill. "Most treatments for relapsed disease can only prolong life - they are not a cure."
Dr Hill is studying how the illness of 50 children who developed relapsed medulloblastoma progressed. She is analysing around 50 paired samples of tumour tissue, which were taken when the children were first diagnosed with medulloblastoma and again when their disease relapsed.
She believes her study is the largest of its kind: "In the past, tumour biopsies have not been taken routinely from children with relapsed disease. It is the first time such a large group of samples, taken from children at initial diagnosis and then again at relapse, has been gathered together. It is vital to study the characteristics of these tumours if we are to improve children's chances."
Dr Alexandra Dedman, Senior Research Evaluation Manager, from Action Medical Research, said: "We are excited to be funding Dr Hill's important work which could lead to ways to identify children who are at high risk of suffering a relapse. If these children could be identified as soon as their tumour is first diagnosed, then they could be offered more intensive treatment right from the beginning.
"Dr Hill's work could also guide the development of new treatments for children who do suffer a relapse, with the aim of prolonging their lives or potentially curing their disease. New treatments might work by targeting features of the tumours that are linked to relapse," she added.
"Relapsed medulloblastoma is one of the largest contributors to childhood cancer deaths in the UK, but it is poorly understood," says Dr Hill. "Very little research has been carried out in the relapsed setting. It is very exciting to be helping to redress that balance and progress our understanding."