Despite tireless efforts over the past 40 years, very little progress has been made in brain cancer treatment, especially Glioblastoma - the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer in adults.
Thanks to the generosity of Flinders Foundation’s supporters – including many with a personal connection to brain cancer - Dr Brett Stringer was awarded a Brain Cancer Research Fellowship and has spent the past three years working alongside leading brain cancer researchers, Associate Professor Cedric Bardy and Professor Simon Conn.
“Knowing that the fellowship was funded in large part by individuals and groups with a personal connection to brain cancer was something I was always mindful of,” Dr Stringer says.
“There was incentive to create a positive legacy from an otherwise awful experience.”
And Dr Stringer’s work with A/Prof Bardy over the past three years has now produced some exciting results.
Together with their research team, they’ve spent the past few years generating cell lines from live brain tumour tissue donated to the South Australian Neurological Tumour Bank at Flinders, so they can grow tumours in a laboratory environment that closely mimics the brain’s.
Their work has tested new treatments, together with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, to see how tumour cells behave.
They discovered that residual cancer cells that remain in the brain’s cerebral spinal fluid following surgery and treatment were in fact more resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy than first thought.
“We compared those cells to the ones that died during treatment, and started to focus on how we could get some other treatment to those resistant cells to ‘re-sensitise’ them and make them more sensitive to chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” Dr Stringer explains.
“We found that the treatment resistant cells produced a protein called NUPR1.
“The great thing is there is a drug out there that’s known to bind to this protein and inhibit its function - it’s a drug that’s been around for 50 years and has been used as a medication to treat schizophrenia.
“We looked to see if that drug made the cells more sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation, and in a significant proportion of the tumours it did, so that was really very exciting.
“Our discoveries are now being evaluated by a group of national experts for a clinical trial opportunity.”
Dr Stringer now returns to Queensland, where he’ll begin working with a team that uses zebrafish to model neurological disease and screen drugs and natural compounds for potential new therapies.
But his hopes for people affected by brain cancer are clear.
“I am hopeful that one day brain cancer will be curable, or at least become a manageable disease.
“The more we learn about it, the more we realise why it is so hard to treat, but that also makes us consider it in new ways and inspires us to try new strategies to combat it.
“When I came here three years ago to work on this idea, there was an inkling that it might do something useful.
“To see something go from a concept like that to something that’s possibly going to enter a clinical trial in a very short time is really exciting and encourages you to keep going.”
This Brain Cancer Research Fellowship was generously funded by guests and supporters of the Pink Yellow Blue Ball, Sarah Constructions, funds raised from the Ride Like Crazy event hosted by SA Police, supporters of Flinders Foundation’s 2019 Christmas Appeal, and friends and family who have generously donated to brain cancer research in memory of their loved one.