Brain Cancer Breakthrough

March 28, 2017

For far too long little has been known about who’s at risk of brain cancer, a rare yet deadly disease that appears to strike people at random.

However that is changing, with scientists uncovering 13 new genetic errors associated with an increased risk of developing glioma - the most common form of brain cancer.

One of the newly discovered genetic changes increases a person’s risk by as much as a third, according to a study published in journal Nature Genetics. The others influenced risk by at least 15 per cent each.

This “hugely” exciting new research means doctors may be able to identify patients at risk earlier, said Michelle Stewart, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s Head of Research Strategy.

It could also mean that there are targets for “badly needed” new drugs to be developed.

“The information that they’ve learnt means that they can work out what drugs may be effective at those new targets because currently the treatment is not very effective at all,” Ms Stewart told AAP.

Around 1600 people are diagnosed with brain cancer in Australia annually and approximately 1200 die from the disease every year.

It kills more children than any other disease and more people under 40 than any other cancer.

Wanting to know more about the genetic causes of this deadly disease, scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research in London, along with colleagues in Europe and the US, led an international study of more than 30,000 people with and without glioma.

The 13 new genetic changes detected were found to affect a variety of cell functions, including nerve cell division, DNA repair, cell cycle control, protein production and inflammation.

Different sets of genes influenced a person’s risk of developing the two subtypes of glioma - glioblastoma and non-glioblastoma.

One of the DNA changes that influenced the gene HEATR3 increased the risk of glioblastoma - a particularly aggressive type of glioma with an average survival of only 10-15 months after diagnosis - by 18 per cent.

The study doubles the total number of genetic changes associated with risk of glioma to 26.

Co-lead author Professor Richard Houlston, a Professor of Molecular and Population Genetics says this was a gigantic step that has uncovered a “treasure trove” of new information.

“The changes in the way we think about glioma could be quite fundamental. So for example, what we thought of as two related sub-types of the disease turn out to have quite different genetic causes which may require different approaches to treatment,” he explained.

Brain cancer is rare but research like this new study is essential to improving patient outcomes, Ms Stewart said.

“As we understand more about the biology of the disease we hope that the treatments can be developed effectively as well.”

“Brain cancer prognosis has been poor for far too long and we believe investment in brain cancer research is what is necessary to improve health outcomes.”

A senate select inquiry into brain cancer research in Australia is underway in Canberra, led by survivor and Labor Senator for Tasmania, Catryna Bilyk. Submissions close on Friday.