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September 7, 2010

SickKids scientists find new types of brain cancer

Medulloblastoma is actually four different cancers – gender- and age- specific

TORONTO – A landmark international study led by scientists at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), has added a new dimension to the understanding of medulloblastoma, the most common malignant type of childhood brain tumour.

Currently medulloblastoma is diagnosed by a pathologist looking at a piece of the tumour under a microscope. By using high-technology tools available only in a science hub like Toronto, the scientists found that the disease is actually four different diseases, each with its own molecular composition and clinical characteristics, including age at onset and gender specificity. The study will be published in the Sept. 7 advance online edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“We used to think that medulloblastoma was one disease, most common in seven-year-old boys. Our study has shown that in fact, it’s four different types that affect girls and boys differently,” says Dr. Michael D. Taylor, Principal Investigator of the study, Neurosurgeon, Scientist in Developmental & Stem Cell Biology at SickKids Research Institute and at The Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre. “We thought girls with medulloblastoma had a better prognosis than boys, but now we know that girls more commonly have the better-prognosis type of medulloblastoma.”  

Similarly, the study shows that medulloblastoma in babies is almost always of a single specific type, and as it happens, a type for which new experimental drugs have recently become available.

The scientists based their study on a subset of more than 1,000 samples from 45 high-quality paediatric neuro-oncology centres around the world. The samples are held in the world’s largest paediatric brain cancer tumour bank established by Taylor’s lab at SickKids. The work was driven by Taylor’s PhD student, Paul Northcott, and was a significant part of his PhD thesis, which he defended last spring.

After using highly sophisticated technology to define the four different groups of medulloblastoma, the scientists developed practical and inexpensive tests that could be used in regular hospital pathology labs. “I’m excited that these tests are now being optimized for children in North America, Europe and Asia,” says Taylor, Associate Professor in the Departments of Surgery, Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto.

“In fact, the results of the study will probably significantly change the management of medulloblastoma worldwide, including in countries with limited resources,” says Dr. Eric Bouffet, Neuro-oncologist, Director of the Paediatric Neuro-oncology program in the Division of Haematology/Oncology , Senior Associate Scientist in Child Health Evaluative Sciences at SickKids Research Institute, and Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto. “It makes us proud that work done here at SickKids in Toronto is going to help children on the other side of the world.”  

The improved understanding of medulloblastoma could also lead to a fine-tuning of treatments.  Some children with medulloblastoma may be over-treated by the high doses of radiation they receive to the developing brain, resulting in damage to critical brain structures. With new tests it is hoped that children whose tumours have a better prognosis can receive less radiation and as a result a dramatically increased quality of life.

Taylor’s lab will be relocated to the Cancer, Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine neighbourhood in the new SickKids Research & Learning Tower. This will encourage interactions with colleagues from other scientific disciplines to improve our understanding of other cancers and genetic conditions.

The study was written by six scientists at SickKids and seven scientists from Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and US.  It is supported by the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Sontag Foundation, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, the American Brain Tumor Association, and grants from the Deutsche Kinderkrebsstiftung and the German Ministry of Health and Education, and SickKids Foundation. 

About The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada’s leading centre dedicated to advancing children’s health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally.  Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system.  SickKids is proud of its vision of Healthier Children. A Better World.™ For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca

About Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning 
The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning will bring together researchers from different scientific disciplines and a variety of clinical perspectives, to accelerate discoveries, new knowledge and their application to child health — a different concept from traditional research building designs. The facility will physically connect SickKids science, discovery and learning activities to its clinical operations. Designed by award-winning architects Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. and HDR Inc. with a goal to achieve LEED® Gold Certification for sustainable design, the Gilgan Centre will create an architectural landmark as the eastern gateway to Toronto’s Discovery District. The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning is funded by a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Government of Ontario, philanthropist Peter Gilgan and community support for the ongoing fundraising campaign. For more information, please visit www.sickkidsfoundation.com/bepartofit.

For more information, please contact:

On Thursday and Friday (Sept. 2 and 3):
Suzanne Gold
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-7654, ext. 2059
suzanne.gold@sickkids.ca

On Tuesday (Sept. 7):
Karina Dahlin
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-6380
karina.dahlin@sickkids.ca

Sept. 8 and onwards:
Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-6380
matet.nebres@sickkids.ca