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From the lab

What are tumour subgroups and why you should care.

Over the past few years a tremendous amount of research has been done on subgrouping several brain tumour types. Within the BTRC, considerable progress has been made on understanding the underlying genetic changes in tumours, such as medulloblastoma, ependymoma and atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour (AT/RT). These types of studies are enormously important to the development of new therapeutic approaches, because, as SunTzu put it in The Art of War, it is important to “know your enemy.”

Tumour subgrouping involves taking a piece of tumour tissue during surgery and physically grinding it up and chemically purifying the DNA. This DNA can then be used in sophisticated arrays and sequencers and compared to normal blood controls to determine which changes are tumour-specific. These changes are then catalogued and compared to other tumours with the same diagnosis. Trends emerge that allow scientists to predict patient outcome and determine which drugs will and will not work during treatment. By knowing the enemy, we can avoid exposing some patients to unnecessary toxic doses of radiation , or focus our efforts on targeting the newly identified pathways that may be abnormally affected in a given subgroup.

Armed with the knowledge of a tumour’s subgroup profile, we will eventually be able to personalize patient treatments, modifying them to match the vulnerabilities revealed in the subgroup profile.  The advances of the past few years would not have been possible without the generosity of the patients who consented to our requests to save samples of tumours and blood for research.