Mini brains may help treat incurable brain cancer

Treatments for incurable and aggressive brain cancers may only be a few years away with researchers in the Children’s Cancer Research Unit (CCRU) beginning a new research project to trial CAR-T cell therapy on mini brains.

The research project, led by Dr Belinda Kramer, A/Prof Geraldine O’Neill and A/Prof Geoff McCowage, is testing whether CAR-T cells are effective in targeting and killing aggressive brain tumours without damaging healthy brain tissue by using 3D structures that replicate the human brain.

As one of the most complex organs in the human body, trialling cancer treatment on the brain has always proven challenging however, this innovative creation is hoped to give researchers the ability to see how a cancer responds to CAR-T cell therapy in an environment that is as-close-as-possible to that of a human.

“The challenge with previous brain cancer research was always that there was no mechanism to test treatments on something that mimicked the brain. Treatments could often only be tested on cultures growing in a petri dish, which behaves very differently to a tumour growing inside a brain,” A/Prof O’Neill, Acting Head of the CCRU, said.

“However, by creating ‘mini brains’ we will be able to see how a tumour spreads through a brain and will be able to monitor how effective the CAR-T cells are in seeking out and killing solid tumour cells.”

Read more in the Daily Telegraph.

CAR-T cell therapy is a novel approach to cancer treatment whereby human immune cells are modified by gene therapy to seek and destroy cancer cells. It has recently had success in treating blood cancers like leukaemia and lymphoma.

“The hope is that the CAR-T cells will be able to migrate through the brain tissue to find the cancerous cells dispersed in the brain and attack them, stopping them from reproducing,” A/Prof O’Neill said.

By using this cutting-edge technology, researchers will be able to tweak, retry and perfect the treatment until they find the right formula and if successful, will be able to introduce a treatment to patients that is designed to attack their specific tumour.

For patients like five-year-old Zara, this could open up a world of possibility.

Zara was diagnosed with an Optical Pathway Glioma in 2016 at just 13 months old. She has undergone several forms chemotherapy as well as two major operations to manage her tumour at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Thankfully, she is responding well to treatment but mum, Alisa is hopeful for better treatment options in the future.

“I would love nothing more than for Zara to be cured and enjoy life as a normal child,” Alisa said.

“To have another child not have to endure multiple treatments over and over would honestly be amazing.”

Stage 1 of the research project, which was made possible thanks to a $245,000 grant from Australian and New Zealand Children's Haematology/Oncology Group (ANZCHOG) as well as support from Kids Cancer Project, NSW Cancer Institute and Australian and New Zealand Sarcoma Association (ANZSA), will continue over the next two years.

Researchers hope the therapy will then be available to patients in Australia by 2025.

The Children’s Cancer Research Unit is the dedicated research arm of the Cancer Centre for Children and is focussed on understanding the molecular and cellular basis of rare childhood and other cancers.