In a landscape of "blanket" treatment options, brain cancer research looks to genomics for new treatment pathways.

Mother-of-two Robin Parkes, 52, remains hopeful the existing treatment program she is undergoing will improve her current state.

Robin was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme in early February 2017, when a CT and MRI scan revealed a tumour in the brain. Her original visit to the doctor was triggered by painful headaches that progressively worsened along with other symptoms, like nausea. Days after being diagnosed, Robin found herself on the operating table, where surgeons worked on removing the tumour. Since that day, she has been undergoing radiation treatment, which will be followed by chemotherapy.

Robin Parkes and her husband Herb To.

All up, Robin is facing eight months of treatment: hours in and out of hospital and clinics, dealing with grim treatment side effects as she tries to hold fast to a normal life – running her marketing consulting business and the day-to-day rhythm of being a mum, wife, friend and colleague.

And in truth, it’s eight months of not knowing whether it will slow or stall her cancer – whether staying the course of treatment will pay off.

“We are trying to maintain our optimism, but the ‘journey’ is not a pleasant one and it is wearing on us,” she says.

Failing to succeed

Robin’s treatment journey is not uncommon.

In fact, Michelle Stewart, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s Head of Research, says current treatments offered to brain cancer patients are “blanket” solutions, but believes there is potential to change that with genomics.

“The study of genomics is having a huge impact on not only brain cancer research but all cancers. What we’re trying to do is look for some kind of biomarker,” she said.

“Genomic biomarkers have been very significant in helping understand prognosis of diseases – so how well a patient might do – but now we’re hoping that can be applied to the field of treatment, so there might be a particular genomic biomarker that gives an indication that we should use a particular drug for that patient, and that will be a real game changer.

“Rather than giving everybody the same treatment and hoping people’s body will respond they’re looking for biomarkers, which means that certain patient’s population will respond to that treatment.”

Michelle Stewart, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation Head of Research

There are already a number of clinical trials underway, such as immunotherapy.

“The impact genomics is having on brain cancer and all cancers is that it’s allowing us to move to a more pan-cancer approach. So cancer is no longer determined 100% by where it is in the body but where it occurs. There could be certain types of cancers that have similar genomics or genetic mutations that could mean the treatment can be shared between diseases,” says Michelle. In early 2017, 13 additional genomic mutations associated with brain cancer were discovered. The results of the study, which Michelle says was one of the largest to ever be conducted on brain cancer, was a “real coup” for researchers studying the rare disease.

“While [the results aren’t] actionable yet, there’s currently no treatments available for those mutations; it gives researchers more of a direction whether those biomarkers can be used for treatment,” she said.

“It’s like a walking up a flight of stairs. Every discovery falls on the next discovery can progress and even when research ‘fails’ it still adds to the body of knowledge we have and an unsuccessful study is just as useful as a successful study; nothing is done in isolation. Many people contribute to any advances.”

Those genomic advances are the focus in the latest version of  Vodafone Foundation’s DreamLab app. The DreamLab app, developed by the Vodafone Foundation, uses your smartphone’s computing power to help the Garvan Institute of Medical Research solve cancer research problems faster.  You can simply plug in your phone at night, open the app, and information on the research puzzles solved is sent back to Garvan researchers via the Amazon cloud – like a giant crossword puzzle, with each app user solving a different part.

To date, more than 65% of the first project (which includes breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and prostate cancer) has been crunched in half the time it would have taken the Garvan Institute to do without DreamLab –  and new projects including melanoma, sarcoma, brain and lung cancers are underway.

According to Michelle, researchers welcome all the collaborative help they can get, particularly if it means delivering more meaningful conclusions

“There are significantly larger amounts of information becoming available. There are multiomics coming into play, including genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, and these will require large amounts of data to be stored and analysed.

“As our ability to gain more data increases, the analytics required is going to be more sophisticated. We can’t even tell at this stage how we’re going to do that but you just can imagine, especially with so much more information than ever before.”

Though these answers might not come fast enough to change Robin’s treatment journey, there are many reasons to hope that the future pathway for brain cancer might hold clearer answers for those that must walk it.

Download the DreamLab app now, and you can join in helping solve cancer – while you sleep.

Terms and conditions

1: A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.  More Terms and Conditions, here.

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Meg Retka-Tidd

Senior Manager, Partners & Programs, Vodafone Foundation

Meg Retka-Tidd,
Senior Manager, Partners & Programs, Vodafone Foundation

Working closely with our partners The Garvan Institute and Hello Sunday Morning, Meg helps the Vodafone Foundation live out its day-to-day purpose of using technology to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians.