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The Brain Cancer Discovery Collaborative (BCDC)

Research idea

The main aim of the Brain Cancer Discovery Collaborative (BCDC) is to ensure that promising new cancer therapies are rapidly tested in clinical trials to extend the lives of patients with brain cancer.

Problem

Brain cancer is an important public health problem in Australia. Most patients die within five years of being diagnosed with brain cancer, resulting in more than 1,100 deaths in Australia each year. What’s more, brain cancer kills more children than any other cancer.

Despite the pressing need for effective treatments, no significant improvement has been made in survival rates in almost three decades. One possible roadblock is that the Australian brain cancer research community is small and is poorly funded compared with research on other types of cancer.

Solution

The BCDC is a collaborative network that brings together many of the best brain cancer scientists and clinicians across Australia.

The BCDC is helping to strengthen the brain cancer research community and to develop the infrastructure needed to accelerate the development of brain cancer therapies.

In March 2013, at its launch, Cure Brain Cancer presented the BCDC with one million dollars in start-up funding. The BCDC is also supported by the successful drug discovery programs of its members, driven by funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Cancer Australia and industry partners.

Approach

Over the next five years, it will focus on four areas:

  1. The researchers have selected their top five drug candidates across the BCDC. They will investigate whether these are suitable for clinical trials, by conducting extensive preclinical (laboratory) testing of these candidates alone and in combination. They will also check that the corresponding targets (the molecules recognised by the drug candidates) are present in brain tumour samples from patients. In addition, they will work to improve the available animal models of brain cancer that they use for preclinical testing, as well as to develop new models.
  2. They will develop protocols for clinical trials in children and adults with brain cancer and will carry out clinical trials of promising therapeutics.
  3. They will develop antibodies for detecting cancer, for monitoring the progress of the disease and for measuring the response of tumours to drug candidates. They will attach tracers to these antibodies and visualise their location in the body by using an imaging technology such as magnetic resonance imaging.
  4. The BCDC will actively foster talented young researchers and clinicians, thereby building Australia’s capacity for brain cancer research.

Why Now?

The BCDC has assembled a team of translational researchers and clinicians with complementary skills, experience and knowledge. The Collaborative also has unique resources, such as imaging facilities, animal models of brain cancer and brain tumour tissue banks. Their top drug candidates are in clinical trials for other types of cancer, and they have formed partnerships with several clinical trial groups to help move promising drug candidates into the clinic.

Team & partners

Professor Terrance Johns (MIMR-PHI Institute of Medical Research, VIC) is the director of the BCDC. He has worked in cancer research for more than 15 years and is renowned internationally for his work on antibodies that specifically recognise cancer cells. One of these antibodies was licensed to Abbott Laboratories and is now in clinical trials, and several such antibodies have attracted significant venture capital and industry funding. 

More specifically, Prof Johns’ work focuses on how signals from a particular family of molecules at the cell surface (the epidermal growth factor family) promote the survival of cancer cells. His laboratory investigates drugs that block the activity of these receptors and new treatment regimens involving drug combinations. At present, he is actively involved in several clinical trials for cancer.

Professor Andrew Boyd (QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, QLD) is the deputy director (clinical) of the BCDC. He is a clinical haematologist and oncologist. His laboratory focuses on cancer biology and more specifically on elucidating potential targets for cancer therapy. Prof Boyd and his team lead the animal model experiments for the BCDC. 


His team also studies the functions of a family of proteins called Eph proteins. Prof Boyd's work on the protein EphA3, together with that of his colleagues Dr Bryan Day and Dr Brett Stringer (who are also members of the BCDC), was published in the prestigious journal Cancer Cell and is being hailed as a potential treatment for glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain tumour.

Associate Professor Kerrie McDonald (Lowy Cancer Research Centre, NSW) is the deputy director (translational) of the BCDC. She carries out translational research in brain cancer and is the director of two major tumour banks for glioma, one of the most common and most lethal types of brain cancer. 

A/Prof McDonald’s team is validating the possible drug targets uncovered by the BCDC, by searching for their presence in various subsets of tumour tissue and DNA samples from patients. Her team is also hunting for molecules (or biomarkers) that indicate a response to treatment in tissue samples collected during clinical trials.

Dr Nicholas Gottardo (Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, WA) is a paediatric oncologist and neuro-oncologist. He directs the BCDC’s studies on childhood cancer, both in the laboratory and the clinic. 

Dr Gottardo was the first to generate a mouse that develops ependymoma, a type of brain cancer that mostly affects children. His team is developing animal models of various childhood cancers and investigating the mechanisms involved in the development of these cancers. The team aims to identify molecules that can be targeted to prevent, slow or reverse childhood cancers.

Professor Stephen Rose (CSIRO, QLD) is an imaging expert with more than 15 years’ experience with technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging. He leads the BCDC’s clinical imaging program, which is developing antibodies that are specific for brain cancer as agents to detect cancer, to monitor the progression of the disease and to assess the efficacy of drug candidates.

Associate Professor Geraldine O’Neill (Children's Hospital at Westmead, NSW) is an expert in the process of metastasis: the spreading of cancer cells from the primary tumour to secondary sites in the body. 

Associate Prof O’Neill has developed a range of three-dimensional cell culture models, in which the brain environment is mimicked in a plastic dish. These assays are better than the frequently used two-dimensional assays at predicting a tumour’s response to drugs. Her team is also studying the cellular machinery involved in the migration of cancer cells and their invasion of normal tissue, to help develop strategies to block metastasis in patients with brain cancer.

Impact

Initially, the researchers focused on therapeutics that are being developed for other types of cancer. In this way, the treatments can be moved quickly into the clinic if they are effective. By pooling their expertise and ideas and by mentoring young researchers and clinicians, they are not only accelerating discoveries but also building the brain cancer research community. This collaborative effort therefore increases the potential for developing new therapeutic strategies for brain cancer. Their collective expertise in both brain cancer research and clinical trials makes them well placed to achieve their ultimate goal—extending patients’ lives.

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