Last week we convened a panel of internationally renowned experts in the field, for our 'Ask the Researcher: Panel Edition' event at Kings College London
To date, we have committed over £35.6 million to research, with every penny coming from voluntary donations. This event was an opportunity for the public to hear from, and put their questions to the panel, which included members of our scientific advisory board (SAB) – the people who make sure we spend our money wisely, funding only the very best research.
The evening was hosted by Alastair Stewart, a long-standing friend and passionate supporter of The Charity, and the audience of over 170 people included those personally affected by a brain tumour, students, medical professionals and researchers.
Professor Richard Gilbertson, Director of the Cambridge Cancer Centre at Cambridge University, and Chair of our biomedical SAB, kicked off the evening with an introduction to the field.
He described some of the turning points in history that helped shape the way we currently diagnose and treat brain tumours, including the first surgical removal of a primary brain tumour. This landmark operation was performed by surgeon Mr Rickman J. Godlee in 1884 and is described as the advent of modern neurosurgery.
He concluded his talk with a look to the future of brain tumour treatment, explaining the concepts of targeted therapy, immunotherapy and personalised medicine.
Professor Martin van den Bent from Erasmus University Hospital explained that brain tumours are an 'illness of DNA'. DNA is the instruction manual for cells, and in normal cells these instruction tell cells when to divide and grow, and when not to.
When there are mutations, or mistakes, in DNA, it can sometime cause cells to grow when they shouldn't and this can lead to cancer.
He emphasised that brain cancer in not a uniform disease. Not only are there over 140 types of brain tumour, but there are many subtypes within them.
Research conducted by Dr Paul Northcott uncovered that there are at least four different subtypes of medulloblastoma, each of which have different biological characteristics that lead to differences in behaviour and response to treatment. This means we cannot use a one-size fits all approach to treatment.
As researchers learn more about the specific changes that are driving the disease, they can develop more tailored treatments. Targeted therapies and immunotherapies are among the most researched types of therapies under investigation for the treatment of brain tumours.
Dr Colin Watts, Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Birmingham, concluded the first half of the evening with an overview of the Cambridge model: a multidisciplinary team-based approach to managing patients with a brain tumour.
This model is patient-centred, consultant-led and research-orientated, meaning patients are seen by informed consultants, meet a dedicated specialist nurse and are entered into clinical trials where possible. It is considered best practice, and Colin has been heavily involved in the discussions with government parties about how this model can be rolled out across the country.
He also spoke about how 5-ALA, otherwise known as 'the pink drink' helps surgeons remove as much of the tumour as possible, and therefore improve outcomes.
Uniting our community
It was then over to the audience. Many of the questions asked were about treatments including the use of complimentary therapies such as cannabis oil and the alkaline diet, the repurposing of existing drugs and ways to speed up the development of new drugs.
There were also discussions around access to therapy and the need to let patients take the risk of undergoing experimental treatment on the NHS, to which Professor Gilbertson emphasised “the patient voice is so powerful – shout loud".
We are hugely grateful to all the researchers for sharing their time and expertise and engaging with you, our brain tumour community to share developments, progress and future research plans.
It was a real show of strength to have so many of you able to attend and we will be streaming the footage of the evening across our social media channels for everyone else in our community shortly.