Tales from the Brain Tumour Lab @ Telethon Kids

The Brain Tumour Lab, within the Telethon Kids Cancer Centre, provides postgraduate student training, including several PhD students. This article will provide insight into the work of one of these talented scientists, who will undoubtedly go on to become tomorrow’s leaders in brain cancer research. Courtney George is a third year PhD student and her project is focussed on the most common malignant brain cancer in children – medulloblastoma. Her research focuses on three main areas: genetics, immunology and chemotherapy.

Genetics is the study of variation in DNA and how changes in our genes can alter the way cells in our bodies behave. Courtney’s first project is elucidating the differences between two very similar genes that are both altered in medulloblastoma. Some medulloblastomas have more activity of these two genes compared to what there should be in the normal brain. But sometimes, only one or the other is increased. These genes behave very similarly, and despite decades of research into their functions, it has been difficult for researchers to pinpoint exactly how they each contribute to cancer development. Courtney’s research is trying to shed light on how they can each contribute to medulloblastoma formation and this understanding will help us develop therapies to block their effects in the future.

In another project, Courtney is doing work to understand the impact of cancer therapies on the cells of the immune system. The immune system is a network of cells that normally work together to defend the body against tiny organisms like bacteria or viruses. Some cells of the immune system can also recognise cancer cells as abnormal and kill them, however, most of our knowledge on this has been obtained in adult cancers, not in children and not in the brain. We know very little about how the immune system works in the brain. Also, brain cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and steroids can temporarily weaken the immune system. Courtney’s research is revealing the impact of chemotherapy on immune cells so that we can understand exactly what treatment is doing, and maybe identify strategies so we can avoid weakening, and maybe even strengthen, the immune system during therapy.

Lastly, Courtney has almost completed a project on a new chemotherapy regimen. She has shown that if she combines an old chemotherapeutic with a new drug, we can more effectively reduce tumour growth. She has even shown increased cancer cell death in multiple laboratory models of medulloblastoma. When Courtney presented these results at the 2017 Combined Biological Sciences Meeting she won a prize acknowledging her great work in this project.