The Brain Tumour Charity awarded a Junior Fellows grants of £600,000 over four years - the first of its kind - to Dana-Farber Research Fellow Tyler Miller, MD, PhD.
Five years since losing both her mum and brother to a glioblastoma brain tumour within weeks of each other, Nikki Saunders from Essex has praised The Brain Tumour Charity for investing a further £1.2 million into research into the disease.
Nikki’s mum Susan was diagnosed with glioblastoma – one of the most aggressive types of brain tumour - on 6 September 2018 and, just two days later, her brother Paul Simons, found out he had the same disease.
Paul, 42 and a former UPS courier, and his wife Sarah had just returned from their holiday when they found out about Susan’s diagnosis and it was while visiting Susan in hospital that Paul had an episode that which led Nikki, a nurse, to demand that he had a scan.
Paul went straight to A&E with a suspected stroke. But to the family’s horror, he was also diagnosed with glioblastoma.
He’d had no symptoms until a few days earlier when he’d experienced numbness in his right hand followed by stiffness in his right leg and a bad headache while on holiday.
Nikki said: “As you can imagine, we were devastated. Having to tell my mum that Paul also had the same type of brain tumour is something I will never forget. Paul was determined that he and mum would beat this. They were both so brave and showed dignity, strength and love to us all throughout.”
Glioblastomas affect more than 3000 people a year in the UK and have an average prognosis of 12 to 18 months. They are notoriously difficult to treat due to the complexity of the tumour and typically don’t respond well to immunotherapy – a treatment that harnesses the power of the body’s own immune system to kill tumour cells.
But The Brain Tumour Charity hopes to change that by awarding Junior Fellows grants of £600,000 each over four years - the first of their kind - to two of the brightest minds in the research field.
The first of those awards will help families like Nikki’s in future. Dr Tyler Miller, a Research Fellow at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA, aims to improve understanding of how glioblastoma cells manage to avoid the immune system and continue to grow.
Previous research shows that immune cells within glioblastoma tumours – known as myeloid cells – suppress the immune system, preventing it from killing the tumour cells. Researchers do not yet know how or why this happens.
Dr Miller’s research aims to characterize myeloid cells by using technology he has developed to identify where in the body these cells come from, and which ones are suppressing the immune system.
This project aims to make glioblastoma cells sensitive to immunotherapy as this has the potential to offer new and improved treatment options so people can live longer, better lives.
For Nikki’s family, who have been committed to raising money for research funded by The Brain Tumour Charity ever since Paul and Susan died, it’s hope on the horizon.
Paul died at 42, just seven weeks after diagnosis and after becoming too ill to begin radio- and chemotherapy treatment. Susan died 11 weeks later, aged 77.
Nikki said: “Words cannot describe what we went through or how missed and loved my brother and mum are.”
The family have also been faced with more tragedy as Nikki’s two goddaughters have both lost their grandads to glioblastoma too.
Paul’s wife, Sarah, ran a virtual London Marathon in New York and has also run the London Marathon while Paul and Nikki’s dad, Keith, walked 150 miles in his walker, and more recently Nikki climbed Snowdon - all to fundraise. To date they have raised nearly £50,000 for The Brain Tumour Charity.
She said: “Climbing Snowdon was massively out of my comfort zone, but I know Paul and mum would have climbed the highest mountain to get better and save each other, so it’s the least I could do. It was my turn to be brave, I just hope they’ll both be proud of me.”
Dr Tyler Miller a Research Fellow at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA, said: “Our novel approach to understanding the immune system in brain tumours hopes to open new doors for immunotherapy. There is still so much we do not know about the immune cells that reside in glioblastoma tumours. We hope that by using cutting edge techniques and modelling we will be able to better understand how to target cells that suppress the immune response in glioblastoma and use it to improve treatment options for those with this devastating diagnosis.
“I am excited by the potential of this research to have a real impact on patients. Our only hope for a cure is through research, so I am grateful to The Brain Tumour Charity, and those that fundraise, for supporting my work and other impactful work in the field.”
Emma Thompson, Head of Research at The Brain Tumour Charity, which is funding his project, said: “Our Junior Fellows grants fund the future leaders of scientific and clinical research into brain tumours, and our aspiration is that this research will help us accelerate a cure for brain tumours.
“We know that within glioblastomas, there are lots of cells creating an environment around the tumour that seems to protect it from the immune system, which is supposed to kill cancer cells. The single cell approach that Tyler is taking will allow us to gain a detailed understanding of what is happening within the tumour, and this will enable us to find better ways to treat this disease.
“Using innovative ways to explore and improve brain tumour treatments is a step towards finding a cure, and immunotherapy has shown promise, but it needs to work better.
“We are very excited to continue working with Tyler and look forward to following the progress of his research over the coming years.”