Edited Getty brain scan

Over recent decades, survival rates for many cancers have undergone a positive transformation. This has largely been thanks to the investment made in research that has established new methods of treating cancer, such as innovative combinations of drugs or engineering more potent cancer-fighting immune cells.

But the situation with brain tumours has not been so positive, with less than one in five patients surviving more than five years after their diagnosis. Partly this can be explained by the complexity of the field, which has to cover more than 120 different types of brain tumour. But for a cancer that kills more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other form of the disease, it’s an anomaly that it receives just a fraction of the funding of other forms.

In an effort to redress the situation, three specialist centres of excellence were established with the charity Brain Tumour Research (BTR). Plymouth is one of them, with the team here specialising in slow-growing tumours, and asking the key questions of how they grow; why they become cancerous; and how to stop them. 

Since its formation, the Plymouth team has grown from three researchers to 20 and moved into the brand new laboratories of the Derriford Research Facility. It costs on average £2,740 per day to fund those labs, and the team has been indebted to the many donations received from businesses, individuals and clubs, as well as from BTR. 

“Historically, brain tumour research has received just 1% of all cancer research funding in the UK,” says Professor Oliver Hanemann, Chair in Clinical Neurobiology in the Peninsula Medical School. “As a result, survival rates have barely changed for decades and progress is urgently required. At present, the only treatment options for brain tumours are chemotherapy or invasive surgery. With ten people dying each day, we urgently need new treatments. ”

And it was those donations that enabled the University to fund a new PhD post in October 2019 – one that brought student Laurien van de Weijer to the city.

Laurien is now working on a methodology to create 3D cell cultures for research – something that is widely used in studying other, better-funded, types of cancer. Laurien said: “Traditionally, researchers have worked with 2D cells as a primary model. Often, when we move through the research process, results change, because 2D cell cultures are only accurate to a certain extent. Today, it’s possible to make 3D cell cultures in the laboratory. These behave much more like the cells in our bodies, and results are more accurate from the outset.”

“It’s a difficult task because, by their very nature, slow-growing brain tumours do not grow or replicate quickly,” adds Oliver. “They may contain only 5% stem cells, which can then be used by Laurien to grow more for use in research. Before the pandemic, she was experimenting with different ways to culture cells, but over the last few months, her job has become more challenging still. She relies on using samples of brain tumour cells that are kindly donated for research, and with fewer operations happening, there has not been so many samples available.” 

With neuroscientists, immunologists, clinicians and specialists all housed together at the Derriford Research Facility, there is a unique interdisciplinary approach at Plymouth’s BTR Centre of Excellence.

“In the past I have only ever worked in laboratories where everyone is working on similar research,” Laurien says. “Here, there are people working on completely different kinds of research, but we find we can help each other. When I’m stuck, there’s always someone to help me move forward.” 

Donations of those vital cancer cells are now thankfully beginning to resume again, and Laurien has also been able to continue with other experiments that are part of her project. And her presence is in itself a positive sign that the prognosis for brain tumour research is beginning to improve. 

“I’m hugely encouraged when I see young, dedicated and talented researchers like Laurien choosing this field of research,” adds Oliver. “It means a great deal especially when you consider that, for too long, brain tumour research was critically underfunded.”

Virtual laboratory tours

The pandemic has also prevented the team from hosting tours of the Derriford Research Facility, which it arranges for those sponsors that have raised enough money to fund a day of work. However, a collaboration with Milton Keynes-based company Visual Realms Ltd, has enabled them to create what is believed to be the first 3D, 360° virtual brain tumour research lab tour in the UK.
The virtual lab tour opens up the experience to potential supporters and organisations for whom long distance travel is prohibitive. It also provides an educational opportunity for schools and the children of supporters under the age of 16, who are unable to visit the charity’s Centres of Excellence on the grounds of health and safety.
“This is a special lab tour that lets you explore the lab virtually,” says BTR’s Digital Marketing Manager, Rachael White. “The viewer is in control and can find out more about different areas in the lab, what individual scientists are focusing on and the pieces of research equipment necessary to conduct cutting-edge research, as they navigate their way around the lab using their mouse.”