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Brain cancer research at Leeds

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Malcolm Jenkin was on holiday in Spain when his wife Pilar fell ill. Malcolm – a Leeds Spanish and Portuguese graduate – was eating breakfast with his family when his wife complained of tiredness. Pilar went to rest in bed but within an hour her illness had become much more serious: “It looked as if her body was shutting down; she was violently ill and lost the use of her legs” says Malcolm. “I was witnessing my wife literally going into a coma.”

Doctors found a growth on Pilar’s brain and operated immediately but due to the risks of surgery were unable to remove all of the tumour. Pilar passed away in the early hours of 3 February 2014, barely six months after the first signs of her illness.

An incurable disease?

Around 9,000 people are diagnosed with brain cancer each year in the UK. The overwhelming majority of them will die from their illness within five years – and more than half will be dead within a year. Symptoms develop rapidly and the cancer is indiscriminate – affecting children, adults and the elderly, with no apparent links to their lifestyle.

Many people are unaware of the impact of this disease, but the statistics are shocking. Brain cancer kills more people under the age of 40 than any other type of cancer and kills more children each year than leukaemia. And the number of people who die from the illness each year is rising steadily, up 27% since 2002 compared to only a 5% rise for cancer generally.

The tumours can survive surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and the illness moves quickly, making it impossible to screen for. Patients may have an inoperable tumour despite having had a brain scan showing no sign of the disease a few weeks earlier.

Susan Short, Professor of Clinical Oncology and Neuro-Oncology at the University of Leeds, says: “Brain tumours are rare cancers. They are challenging because there is no way of screening for them, they don’t respond very well to treatments that work for other types of tumours and they develop very quickly – so it’s a scary disease.”

While the treatment of most types of cancer has improved over the past 20 years, the prognosis for brain cancer has barely changed. This is in part due to a lack of funding; brain cancer receives just one percent of national cancer research funding – a disproportionately small amount considering the impact of the illness.

This has led to growing pressure for greater funding and new research to target this condition. But where do you start with a disease which has no known cause, develops in a matter of weeks and seems impossible to treat?

Leeds Cancer Centre

Leeds is home to the second largest cancer centre in the UK – a world-leading partnership in cancer research and treatment between the University of Leeds, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and Cancer Research UK.

The centre provides cutting-edge research and some of the most advanced cancer treatment anywhere in the world. Its work exemplifies the “bench to bedside” approach which means that many of our researchers are also clinicians working to translate their findings into practical cancer treatments. The approach also gives our researchers first-hand contact with patients and ensures that treatments are informed by the very latest developments in research.

A viral treatment for brain cancer

Now a new research project at the Leeds Cancer Centre is giving fresh hope to brain cancer patients. Professor Short is leading a two-year clinical trial into the use of an oncolytic virus – a virus that can be injected into patients to target and kill brain cancer cells.

Oncolytic viruses target cancer cells, attacking tumours while leaving healthy cells unharmed. These viruses can also “switch on” the natural defences of the immune system to recognise cancer cells and destroy them. Similar techniques are used in other cancer treatments but this is the first time this approach has been used for brain cancer in the UK.

Initial findings from Professor Short’s work have been very promising, demonstrating that a virus injected into a patient is able to target brain cancer cells. These findings are raising hopes that a new treatment for brain cancer could soon be in the pipeline. Funding from Cancer Research UK has enabled Professor Short and her colleagues to test the use of the virus on patients with poor prognosis brain cancer. The two-year project started this summer and will trial the use of the virus on 30 brain cancer patients.

If the trials are successful they could deliver new treatments and provide real hope to those affected by this terrible disease. “For decades it was felt nothing could be done for brain cancer patients” says Professor Short. “Now a concentration of expertise at Leeds and our promising early results are finally holding out the hope of success.”

Researching the human brain

The University is undertaking a wide range of research into functioning of the brain including:

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