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Genetic Breakthrough for Brain Cancer in Children

Monday, January 30, 2012

(ScienceDaily) – An international research team led by the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre has made a breakthrough that could change the way pediatric cancers are treated in the future. The researchers identified two genetic mutations responsible for up to 40 per cent of glioblastomas in children — a fatal cancer of the brain that is unresponsive to chemo and radiotherapy treatment. The mutations were found to be involved in DNA regulation, which could explain the resistance to traditional treatments and may have significant implications on the treatment of other cancers. The study was published this week in the journal Nature.

The researchers identified two mutations in an important gene known as the histone H3.3. This gene is key in modulating genetic expression. “These mutations prevent the cells from differentiating normally and help protect the genetic information of the tumor, making it less sensitive to radiotherapy and chemotherapy,” says Dr. Nada Jabado, hematologist-oncologist at The Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre and principal investigator of the study.

“This research helps explain the ineffectiveness of conventional treatments against cancer in children and adolescents — we’ve been failing to hit the right spot,” says Dr. Jabado. “It is clear now that glioblastoma in children is due to different molecular mechanisms than those in adults, and should not be treated in the same way. Importantly, we now know where to start focusing our efforts and treatments instead of working in the dark.”

Inappropriate regulation of this gene has been observed in other cancers such as colon, pancreatic, lymphoma, leukemia and pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, and future research could therefore reveal improved treatments for these diseases.

Brain tumours are the primary cause of death for children with cancer in Europe and North America. The diagnosis of glioblastoma in a child or adolescent remains a death sentence and about 200 children in Canada die every year of this cancer. Most children will die within the two years of their diagnosis regardless of treatment.

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