28 Feb 2022

Zeroing in on improved brain cancer diagnosis and treatment: Rare Disease Day feature

See Prof Meng Law and Dr Mastura Monif explain their research
into improved diagnostic techniques and potential treatments
for brain cancer: Video (3:39 mins)
Part of our special series for Rare Disease Day featuring CCS researchers 

Dr Mastura Monif and Professor Meng Law explain how their complementary approaches are refining and improving the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumours. See the video and read their stories below.
Protein reduces tumour growth in devastating brain cancer

The Department of Neuroscience’s Dr Mastura Monif is investigating glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer with an average survival time of nine to 12 months.

Glioblastoma affects approximately 3-6/100,000 people. Symptoms can include headache, nausea, vomiting, motor deficits (weakness in arms/legs), cognitive/memory deficits, personality change, and others depending on the location of the tumour in the brain.

Dr Monif’s group is trying to devise anti-glioblastoma therapies, and to understand the role of the immune system in glioblastoma proliferation. One of its main focuses is on the role of the protein P2X7R – expressed in glioblastoma cells and associated immune cells – which is implicated in glioblastoma growth. 

L-R: Dr Mastura Monif and two of her PhD students involved
in glioblastoma research, Katrina Kan and Matthew Drill
“We have found that blocking P2X7R with a pharmacological compound can reduce tumour growth in culture. And importantly blockage of P2X7R was more effective in reducing tumour growth than the conventional chemotherapy, Temozolomide,” Dr Monif said. “The findings can have huge implications for glioblastoma treatment. It means P2X7R is potentially a therapeutic target to combat this aggressive cancer.”

There have been virtually no new treatments for glioblastoma in the last 12 years. “Our approach could change this and hopefully provide a much-needed therapy for this devastating cancer,” Dr Monif said.

The group’s studies are mostly preclinical, relying on samples provided by patients as they undergo resection of their tumour. The samples are cultured in the lab and various cell processes are examined. “We also examine potential treatments in the tumour cultures. We are also using tumour cell lines, tumour stem cell cultures.”

The work is a collaboration between Monash University, Alfred Health, Royal Melbourne Hospital, and The University of Melbourne. Dr Monif currently supervises PhD students Lieyen Katrina Kan and Matthew Drill, who are conducting their higher degrees investigating glioblastoma.

See the July 2020 story on their breakthrough research: Potent glioma tumour inhibitor discovery

Scientist enlists AI used to check brain tumour progression

Prof Meng Law looking at a brain scan with a colleague.
Image: Aftershock
Professor Meng Law is using AI to try to detect imaging features on brain tumours which may be able to predict the molecular and genomic features, and outcome, for patients.

His team is currently collecting this data from a few hospitals and will develop an AI model to make these predictions using it. A paper in Nature Communications, using multi-centre data and developing AI methods to predict pseudoprogression in brain tumours, was one of the lab’s highest cited publications.

“Patients with brain tumours treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can develop an inflammation response to the treatment, which can look like the tumour is getting worse or progressing, called pseudoprogression,” Professor Law explained. “It is hard for us using imaging to sometimes tell the difference between pseudoprogression and real tumour progression,” he said. “This is significant because then patients who do have progressing tumours can then be treated again with the same or other therapies.”

The approach of using AI can be applied to other patients with rare diseases in the future, and the findings published can be used to develop other AI models, he said.

This Rare Disease Day feature is presented by the CCS Community and Researcher Engagement (CaRE) committee. See more about CaRE: www.monash.edu/medicine/ccs/community-engagement

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