Scientists find marker that signals better brain cancer survival for children

Cancer Research UK

Scientists supported by Cancer Research UK and the Samantha Dickson Research Trust have uncovered a protein that signals a more favourable survival for children with a form of childhood brain tumour, reveals a study published today (Friday) in the Journal of Clinical Oncology*.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who are members of the United Kingdom Children’s Cancer Study Group (UKCCSG), studied the tumour cells of 109 patients with a form of malignant childhood brain tumour called medulloblastoma. The results from the European-wide trial** revealed that 25 per cent of the tumours showed activation of a protein called Beta-catenin. The 27 patients with this protein had a survival rate of nearly 93 per cent, compared to 65 per cent for patients without it.

Treatments for childhood brain tumours are intensive and can have difficult side effects. Understanding more about how a tumour is likely to behave may allow doctors to tailor treatments to better suit individual children.

The researchers believe that patients who carry the activated protein have a milder form of the disease and could be spared unnecessary treatment. This could reduce the impact of side effects on patients’ later life. For children with more aggressive tumours, intensive therapies could be prescribed earlier to try to improve these patients’ outcome.

Study author David Ellison, Professor of Neuropathology at Newcastle University's Northern Institute for Cancer Research, says: “This is the first time that a protein has been identified which signals a more favourable outcome in childhood medulloblastoma. We hope this discovery will make a crucial difference for patients having treatment for this type of brain tumour in the future.

“What was surprising about our results is that the catenin protein had previously been shown to be associated with aggressive behaviour in other cancers. In contrast we found that it was such a strong marker of positive outcome in medulloblastoma that even those patients whose cancer had been diagnosed at a later stage, when it had spread, had a more favourable outcome than those patients who lacked the activated protein.”

Neil Dickson, Chairman of the Samantha Dickson Research Trust, says: “When our daughter Samantha died from a brain tumour in 1996 aged 16, we were determined to see something positive come about from her death.

“Our charity was set up to raise awareness and funds for research into brain tumours, and we are delighted that this significant finding offers the potential for improved quality of life and survival times for sufferers of medulloblastoma.”

Professor John Toy, Medical Director of Cancer Research UK, says: “The management of childhood brain tumours will only improve with a greater understanding of the disease and these researchers have made an important contribution to identifying how these tumours respond to treatment.

“Finding better treatments for children with cancer has always been difficult due to the mercifully small number of cases. The UKCCSG has been instrumental in coordinating large-scale international trials and this research is an excellent example of how collaboration can lead to advances in childhood cancer.”

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Notes to Editor

*Beta-catenin status predicts a favourable outcome in childhood medulloblastoma. Journal of Clinical Oncology. David W Ellison, Olabisi E Onilude, Janet C Lindsey, Meryl E Lusher, Claire L Weston, Roger E Taylor, Andrew D Pearson and Steven C Clifford. Volume 24, Issue 31.

The research was supported by grants from the Samantha Dickson Research Trust, the Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and through Cancer Research UK’s support for the UKCCSG.

In the UK, about 300 children are diagnosed with a brain tumour each year. Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain cancer in children, making up around 20 per cent of all cases. Currently around 40 per cent of affected children die of the disease.

Cells in the developing nervous system, which normally form the cerebellum or hind-brain, can sometimes turn cancerous to form a medulloblastoma.

Tumours that develop from these early cells are called PNETs (Primitive NeuroEctodermal Tumours), and medulloblastoma is the commonest type of PNET.

**Results from the SIOP (International Society of Paediatric Oncology)/UKCCSG PNET3 trial

Cancer Research UK supports European-wide trials to focus on improving treatments for rare forms of children’s cancer such as medulloblastoma. This collaboration allows researchers to recruit sufficient patients to carry out statistically valid trials to improve treatments. In the trial, 109 children were tested for beta-catenin in the nucleus of their cancer cells. 25 per cent of the children (27 out of 109) tested positive for this protein. Overall survival for children with nuclear beta-catenin was 92.3 per cent and 65.3 per cent for those without it. Five-year event-free survival was 88.9 per cent for children with nuclear beta-catenin and 59.5 per cent for those without it.

Cancer Research UK

  • Cancer Research UK's vision is to conquer cancer through world-class research.
  • The charity works alone and in partnership with others to carry out research into the biology and causes of cancer, to develop effective treatments, improve the quality of life for cancer patients, reduce the number of people getting cancer and to provide authoritative information on cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK is the world's leading independent charity dedicated to research on the causes, treatment and prevention of cancer.
  • For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7121 6699 or visit the Cancer Research UK website.

United Kingdom Children’s Cancer Study Group (UKCCSG)

  • The UKCCSG co-ordinates the care of virtually all children with cancer in the UK. The organisation works to improve the management of children with cancer and to advance the knowledge and study of childhood malignancy.
  • Cancer Research UK funds the clinical trials work of the UKCCSG via its co-ordinating centre in Leicester and 22 paediatric centres across the British isles.
  • The group has over 500 members working in its 22 centres including about 60 corresponding members from other countries around the world. Membership of the group is multidisciplinary and includes clinicians, pathologists, and representatives of other disciplines, epidemiologists and basic scientists.
  • For further information about the UKCCSG visit the UKCCSG website.

The Samantha Dickson Research Trust

  • The Samantha Dickson Research Trust was established by Neil and Angela Dickson in 1997 following the death of their daughter Samantha, aged 16, from a malignant brain tumour.
  • In a short space of time the charity has become the leading brain tumour charity in the UK and the largest funder of laboratory-based brain tumour research in the country.
  • The charity has a current research programme of £3 million which is supervised by a first class Scientific and Medical Advisory Board. Within the programme, major funding for research into medulloblastoma has been approved, supporting Newcastle, Cambridge and Southampton universities.
  • The dedicated support telephone number is 0845 130 9733 and for further information about the charity, visit the Samantha Dickson Research Trust website.