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Press Release | Feb 6, 2012

Study will identify tumour subtypes for better treatment. TFRI invests $750,000 in national childhood brain cancer project

Vancouver -- A national, multidisciplinary project made up of scientific and clinical experts in both British Columbia and Ontario is receiving $750,000 over three years from The Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) to improve outcomes for children diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a common form of childhood cancer.

"Our investment in this important project is to help with the translation of advanced genomics technology for practical clinical use so that children diagnosed with this disease will, through better treatment, be able to live long, full and productive lives. We are pleased to support this project co-funded by Genome Canada and Genome BC and led by research teams in both British Columbia and Ontario," says TFRI president and scientific director Dr. Victor Ling.

The project was announced January 30, 2012 by Genome BC in Vancouver. Genome Canada is providing $4.8 million and Genome BC is providing $2.4 million over the life of the three-year study. In all, $9.8 million from all funding partners will help the team to develop laboratory tests to determine which type of brain cancer children diagnosed with the disease suffer from to more accurately classify the tumours for treatment. The hope is that new knowledge and more treatment options will enable future treatment to be less harsh and with fewer side-effects for young people diagnosed with the disease. This includes not overtreating patients where it is unnecessary, and ensuring a good quality of life in cases where the prognosis is poor and there are few treatment options.

TFRI's funding for the project will support the team's efforts to:
  • classify the four medulloblastoma tumour subgroups into more targeted groups based on their heterogeneity;
  • develop biomarkers to treat the identified tumour sub-groups; and
  • study the mutational data gathered during genomic sequencing to see if pre-existing therapies used for other diseases and forms of cancer would work for any of the identified tumour subtypes.

"TFRI is funding the clinical part of the study, which is really taking the science from the lab and pushing it into the clinic through the development of biomarkers for the tumour subtypes," says project co-leader Dr. Michael Taylor, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto . "It was very valuable for us to have TFRI agree to be a funding partner in this project because with their stamp of approval we were then able to get others to agree to participate."

Dr. Taylor says the team will work with genomics experts at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) in BC under the direction of project leader Dr. Marco Marra, director of the MSGSC, to sequence all the genes expressed in the 1,000 medulloblastoma tumours that will be studied. "We'll be sending RNA and DNA samples to Vancouver for the team there to sequence and analyze the data using a process call whole transcriptome sequencing."

In previously published work, Dr. Taylor and his colleagues classified medulloblastoma into four specific subtypes: one has a good prognosis, a second has a poor prognosis; and the remaining two have "intermediate" prognoses. The new funding will enable them to further classify these subtypes to develop treatments and therapies that match the tumours .

Taylor has been fortunate to develop a large collection of tumours from around the world which will be used in the study. It's rather unusual to have so many samples, he says, but the collection has been developed through work with more than 50 different cancer centres around the world under an initiative he is leading called MAGIC (Medulloblastoma Advanced Genomics International Consortium).

Having this large a collection to study will enable the team to develop appropriate biomarkers , work that has already begun in Toronto. "The sequencing will help us identify more robust markers and what will work in people's hand around the world." Biomarkers would need to be tested in a clinical trial before moving into the clinic for human application.

Ultimately, the goal is to avoid overtreating some tumours where less harsh treatments would suffice; and, at the same time, identify tumours where available treatment options will not work and, in fact, will compromise what quality of life may exist for patients with a poor prognosis.

Dr. David Malkin, a pediatric oncologist at Sick Kids, is also a project co-leader.

View the Genome BC press release

View the Vancouver Sun article