McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

New 'dream team' seeks new treatments for relapsed brain cancer tumours

Published: September 8, 2016
Dr. Sheila, principal investigator
Dr. Sheila Singh, principal investigator and an associate professor of surgery for the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster.

A McMaster University researcher is leading new work to find treatment options for the same form of brain cancer suffered by Tragically Hip band member Gord Downie.

Sheila Singh, an associate professor of surgery of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, is the principal investigator, and her team is tackling the most lethal and aggressive brain tumour that occurs in adults. They will focus not on the original tumour, but on the relapsed cancer.

The team will receive $2.5 million in funding for the research from the Terry Fox Research Institute over the next three years.

“What we’ve learned so far about glioblastoma is that it always comes back, and when it does come back it’s an entirely different tumour landscape than the original cancer,” said Singh, who is also a pediatric neurosurgeon for McMaster Children’s Hospital. “We think it’s so much more valuable to study the disease that’s actually killing the patients and to try to develop targeted therapies against that.”

Approximately two to three people per 100,000 are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year. Fewer than five per cent of these patients survive beyond five years, with average survival time being around 15 months.

“This is a very horrible and aggressive tumour because it robs people not only of their survival, but also of their quality of life,” said Singh, noting that she has assembled a “dream team” of scientists to help combat this deadly disease.

The new grant is comprised of three complimentary sub-projects lead by Singh, as well as Drs. Sachdev Sidhu and Jason Moffat who are both based at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto.

One team is focused on characterizing the genomic landscape of recurrent glioblastoma using cutting-edge technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 (a genome editing tool recently celebrated as the discovery of the year). The second will design novel immunotherapies and antibodies that can bind to cancer cell receptors and ultimately kill them, and the third will test these new therapies in advanced mice models of glioblastoma.

“Our main goal is to get new therapies into patients as soon as possible,” said Singh, noting that her own patients will be directly benefitting from new brain cancer therapies. “Our team also has the ability to commercialize, to bring industry partners in and help us actually develop drugs based on the antibodies we design. We are the whole package.”

The complexity of glioblastoma poses a huge challenge, but Singh said the team is going in “with eyes open” to give back to the community.

“We’ve got a lot of energy and enthusiasm and we’re going to channel it all into the science,” she said. “To be awarded this team grant and to function as a leader has been one of the most incredible honours of my life.”

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