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Brain cancer breakthrough; Welsh scientists recreate malfunctioning cells.

Byline: Madeleine Brindley

BRAIN cancer patients were last night given fresh hope of new treatments following a breakthrough by Welsh scientists.

A team at the University of Wales College of Medicine have become the first to understand and recreate the complex processes normal brain cells undergo when they become cancerous.

They have traced and identified the genetic changes that take place in individual brain cells.

It is hoped their findings can now be used to test emerging drugs and improve the treatment available for people, particularly the young, who develop this form of cancer.

Within five years it is feasible that drugs that can prevent brain tumours from growing and spreading could be available for patients.

Cancer Research UK's director of clinical research, Professor Robert Souhami, last night said the discovery was a 'very valuable' tool in the fight against cancer.

'Brain cancer does not generally respond well to radiotherapy or chemotherapy and currently the prognosis for patients is poor,' he said.

'So any discovery that can help towards generating new drug targets for the disease is very welcome.'

Professor David Wynford- Thomas, head of pathology at UWCM, and his team in Cardiff, have successfully managed to turn normal human brain cells to cancer cells - malignant glioma, the most common form of brain cancer - by manipulating individual genes.

He said, 'The difficulty in understanding cancers of all sorts is that when they present to a clinician to is difficult to work out what has gone wrong and what all the genetic mutations mean.'

Scientists had previously identified three key genes in the development of this form of cancer - p53, p16 and HTERT - and it was suggested that they may be damaged in a particular sequence as the disease progressed.

The UWCM team artificially created brain cancer cells by allowing normal cells to multiply until they hit their natural limit and stopped dividing.

They then added a faulty p53 gene to the cells and found that they started to divide again.

In most of these cells a second in-built barrier halted the renewed division. But some cells were able to overcome this limit and carry on dividing because they had lost the function of the p16 gene.

When these cells hit a third growth barrier, scientists added a faulty version of the HTERT gene, which transformed the cells into immortal cancer cells that grow and divide endlessly.

'Our model mimics the sequence of gene damage that occurs in patients with malignant glioma and could allow us to identify key drug targets for the disease,' said fellow researcher Professor David Kipling.

'If we can counteract the effect caused by genes damaged early on in brain cancer we can stop the disease from becoming aggressive.'

Prof Wynford-Thomas added, 'If we understand what the fundamental abnormalities are in the development of brain cancer then we have a much better chance of targeting those particular abnormalities with new therapies.

'Having this model will allow us to see whether there are specific designer drugs for brain cancer instead of the current chemotherapy which cannot pick out particular targets and produces unacceptable side effects.

'Certainly this will lead to more effective treatments, the only question mark is time.'

Malignant growths that can kill the young

BRAIN cancer is not a very common form of the disease, but it does tend to affect the young.

It accounts for just 2% of all new cancers diagnosed in the UK - in Wales there are about 170 new cases diagnosed annually.

Brain cancers, according to Cancer Research UK, are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the skull.

Inside the brain, any abnormal growth puts pressure on sensitive structures and may impair their function.

Although brain tumours can develop at any age they are a particularly common form of childhood cancers affecting the under-14s, but they are also common in adults over 40.

Some brain tumours can be removed surgically or treated with radiotherapy and with special forms of chemotherapy.

Figures for Wales show that 60% of men and 55% of women with brain cancer die.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 12, 2003
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