A newly funded TFRI “dream team” plans to tackle the most lethal and aggressive brain tumour that occurs in adults by focusing not on the original tumour, but on the relapsed cancer.
“What we’ve learned so far about glioblastoma is that it always comes back, and when it does come back it’s an entirely different tumour landscape than the original cancer,” says principal investigator and pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Sheila Singh (McMaster University). “We think it’s so much more valuable to study the disease that’s actually killing the patients and to try to develop targeted therapies against that.”
Approximately two to three people per 100,000 are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year. Fewer than five per cent of these patients survive beyond five years, with average survival time being around 15 months. (Editor’s note: This form of brain cancer is the same that Tragically Hip band member Gord Downie announced in May that he has.)
“This is a very horrible and aggressive tumour because it robs people not only of their survival, but also of their quality of life,” says Dr. Singh, noting that she has assembled a “dream team” of scientists to help combat this deadly disease.
The new PPG is comprised of three complimentary sub-projects led by Dr. Singh, as well as Drs. Sachdev Sidhu, Robert Rottapel and Jason Moffat, both based at the Donnelly Centre For Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto. One team is focused on characterizing the genomic landscape of recurrent glioblastoma using cutting-edge technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 (a genome editing tool recently celebrated as the discovery of the year). The second will design novel immunotherapies and antibodies that can bind to cancer cell receptors and ultimately kill them, and the third will test these new therapies in advanced mice models of glioblastoma.
“Our main goal is to get new therapies into patients as soon as possible,” says Dr. Singh, noting that it is her own patients who will be directly benefitting from new brain cancer therapies. “Our team also has the ability to commercialize, to bring industry partners in and help us actually develop drugs based on the antibodies we design…We are the whole package.”
The complexity of glioblastoma poses a huge challenge, but Dr. Singh says the team is going in “with eyes open” to give back to the community.
“We’ve got a lot of energy and enthusiasm and we’re going to channel it all into the science,” says Dr. Singh. “To be awarded this team grant and to function as a leader has been one of the most incredible honours of my life.”
A former TFRI New Investigator, Dr. Singh has been involved in TFRI’s pan-Canadian translational glioblastoma project which is led by Dr. Greg Cairncross, University of Calgary, and involves a team of investigators based at research centres across the country. The latter project is also focused on bringing new treatments to the clinic for these patients, including one currently being tested in a clinical trial launched in spring 2016.