As National Brain Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close Red Wire looks at how clinical trials at the Garvan Institute for Medical Research are using genomics to provide hope to cancer patients who have exhausted all treatment options.

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Consisting of 100 billion neurons and up to 500 trillion synapses, the human brain is capable of processing one billion billion calculations per second.

Brain cancer is the 18th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, affecting 1 out of every 124 Australians. Due to the complex nature of the human brain, treating these types of cancers is notoriously difficult for doctors and their patients.

However, with recent advances in genomics (the study of an individuals genes and other information encoded in their genome), scientists are often able to identify the genetic changes responsible for these cancers and can use molecular information from within the tumour to match individual patients with targeted treatments where possible.

Michelle Stewart, Head of Research at Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, 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.

So there might be a particular genomic biomarker that gives an indication that they should use a particular drug for that patient, and that would be a real game changer.

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

At the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, scientists are using precision medicine to provide new hope for patients with rare cancers such as brain tumours through the Australian Genomic Cancer Medicine Program. The program has two main areas of focus – clinical trials matching patients to therapies, and a risk-management program for families with an inherited high risk of cancer.  Through clinical trials, genomic technology is used to match novel therapies with rare cancer patients who have exhausted all treatment options.

There are already a number of clinical trials underway – many involving 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… 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.

Apps such as DreamLab are one way Australians can be involved in helping researchers find a cure for these uncommon cancers. DreamLab helps speed up the pace of cancer research at the Garvan Institute through the power of users’ smartphones.           

The free app, available on iOS and Android, includes several projects working towards new cancer discoveries.  The most recent project – Demystify – aims to connect the dots between physical human traits – hair colour, height, blood pressure, and, at times, symptoms of disease – and their genetic basis.

To achieve this, existing data on individuals’ traits (which will be sourced from clinical information and wearable devices such as fitness wristbands) will be correlated with individuals’ genetic information.

However, to do this correlation is not simple. Complex calculations are required to determine correlations between different traits. These calculations need huge amounts of computing power, and it is these calculations that will be computed via Project Demystify on the DreamLab app.

Terms and conditions

DreamLab Terms and conditions: 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.

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Allyssa Hextell

Public Policy and Corporate Affairs Graduate

Allyssa Hextell,
Public Policy and Corporate Affairs Graduate

As a key member of the Public Policy team, Allyssa is passionate about the role of technology in community development. Hailing from regional Australia, Allyssa is committed to bringing regional communities to the global stage.