Childhood brain cancer tumours are one of the most challenging and heart-breaking conditions that a child can suffer from, with many tumours being life threatening.
Despite being very difficult to treat, researchers are making significant strides in understanding how these tumours spread throughout the brain. A great example is a recent study by the Institute of Cancer Research, London, which involved the use of mathematical modelling to detect, measure and map how cells within diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) tumours spread.
What is a DIPG tumour?
DIPG tumours are highly aggressive, as the diffuse tumour does not form a solid mass. Instead, it spreads throughout the brainstem and central nervous system. Due to the location, operating is not an option, and these tumours are one of the deadliest forms of childhood cancers. For decades there was little progress in treatment research, however in 2018 researchers found that these tumours are made up of cancerous cells and non-cancerous cells that are controlled by the tumour, with the latest 2023 study focusing on two subtypes of cells, VI-E6 and VI-D10.
Cooperation between cells doubles the tumour spread
This was the first study which measured interactions between cells and how they spread and invade the surrounding areas. The team used deep learning to process images obtained from patient biopsies, with the researchers able to identify interactions between cooperating cell subtypes and those which spread due to unrelated factors.
In the past, research focused on cell growth, but this model-based study focused on the interactions that impact the way the cells spread into new areas. When two subtypes of cells were cultured together in the lab it more than doubled the spread, compared to those which were grown in separate environments. This highlighted the interactions between cells, with some cells spreading without harming others and other cells growing while exploiting a subtype.
What do the new findings mean for treatment options?
As Professor Chris Jones highlights, this type of cancer is very difficult to treat with almost all sufferers dying within two years. The professor and his team are aiming to target and disrupt the interactions between the tumour cells, with the latest research using mathematical modelling to map and measure the way these cells grow. If treatments are able to target and block specific cell subtypes, it would be possible to stop the spread in its track, and the innovative framework could also be applied to many other cancerous tumours.