Science

‘Exciting development' in childhood brain cancer will improve prognosis – study

Clinicians will be able to tailor treatment for each individual child based on the biological make-up of the disease.

Doctors will be able to predict which children with brain cancer are most at risk of seeing the disease return after treatment, in what has been described as a “very exciting development”.

Scientists at Newcastle University have said their work will enable clinicians to tailor treatment for each individual child and improve prognosis for medulloblastoma by analysing the biology of the disease.

Medulloblastoma is a malignant brain tumour in children, with around 70 diagnosed each year in the UK.

Relapse following initial treatment – which includes surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy – occurs in around 30% of children and often has a grave prognosis.

But the researchers said the findings, published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, could improve clinical outcomes of patients who have had a relapse by providing the ability to fine-tune treatment, monitor the disease, and improve quality of life.

Professor Steve Clifford, director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Cancer, who led the research, said the results of their research can be applied immediately in clinics.

Professor Steve Clifford
Professor Steve Clifford, director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Cancer (Newcastle University)

He said: “Our research is a very exciting development for the treatment of medulloblastoma patients and it will help improve clinical outcomes.

“Our study allowed us to undertake biology-directed disease surveillance after initial treatment, in other words to gather and analyse a large amount of data on patients’ tumours, looking out for particular types of relapse in particular groups of patients.

“This revealed that some patient biological groups relapse later and therefore need to be monitored longer as it is not a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling this kind of brain tumour.

“Our findings also mean that we can now predict the course of the disease following a relapse and tailor treatments, enabling us to improve how we manage these patients through more personalised approaches based on understanding their individual disease.”

The researchers monitored 247 young medulloblastoma patients from around the globe who had a relapse.

Professor Clifford said that as part of the next steps, more research is needed to understand the biological mechanisms of medulloblastoma and investigate whether it “gives rise to opportunities to develop new, more effective therapies for the disease”.

Evan Wharton in hospital at 15-months-old
Evan Wharton in hospital at 15 months old (Lindsey Sparrow/Newcastle University)

Four-year-old Evan Wharton was diagnosed with medulloblastoma when he was 15 months old.

After nine hours of surgery at Newcastle’s Great North Children’s Hospital, the doctors removed a golf-ball sized tumour from his brain.

Following months of intense chemotherapy after surgery, Evan was given the all clear in September 2018 but his cancer returned 10 months later, which required more surgery along with a course of proton therapy.

His parents, Lindsey Sparrow, 38, and Scott Wharton, 43, a project construction manager, from Morpeth, Northumberland, said their lives turned upside down as they watched their happy son battle the brutal disease.

Ms Sparrow said: “When we were told his cancer had relapsed it was again upsetting as we knew he would have to go through more surgery and intense treatment.”

In October this year, Evan – who was not part of the study group – had a brain scan to monitor his health and there was no sign of the cancer.

Evan Wharton
Evan, aged 4, with his mother Lindsey (Lindsey Sparrow/Newcastle University)

But the side-effects of his treatment remain.

His parents said that Evan has hearing problems, is not yet walking or talking, but is back at nursery and enjoying spending time with his friends.

Ms Sparrow said: “It is amazing and encouraging to hear of this breakthrough by scientists at Newcastle University.

“Evan has a lot of long-term health issues due to the type of treatment he received which, yes, saved his life but has also altered his life.

“With more tailor-based options available, this will hopefully lessen the long-term side effects and harsh treatments that children have to endure.”

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