A gut feeling about new therapies for glioma research
Dr Marlene Hao co-lab head of the Stamp-Hao Lab at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience and Centre for Stem Cell Systems, is investigating the link between the unique properties of glial cells from the gut and their protection against aggressive cancer development, as seen in glial cells of the brain.
Gliomas are an incredibly aggressive form of brain cancer. Approximately 1700 cases of brain cancer are diagnosed in Australia each year. Gliomas make up the majority (80%) of malignant primary brain tumours, meaning they are rapid growing, can spread away from the initial site, and are often life-threatening.
Although there have been improvements in diagnostic and therapeutic options, survival rates remain low for brain cancers, with only 1 in 5 patients surviving beyond 5 years.
Brain glia v gut glia
Gliomas can come from mutations that affect glial cells or neural stem cells. Glial cells are found throughout the nervous system, including in the brain and central nervous system as well in the enteric nervous system, a network of nerve cells and glial cells located within the wall of the gut. These gut glial cells, called enteric glia, share many similarities with brain glia, and can even act as stem cell in the gut. Remarkably, gliomas in the gut are very rare, and more than 95% of tumours in the bowel are benign.
This key difference raises a fascinating question for stem cell researcher Dr Marlene Hao and co-lab head Dr Lincon Stamp: what is unique about enteric glial cells that protect them from developing aggressive cancers?
Understanding the gut to treat the brain
Marlene and Lincon will be one of the first research teams to investigate the genetic differences between these two types of glial cells, with the hope of finding a gene, or gene-family, that has a strong relationship with the occurrence of metastasis of these cells.
They are also investigating the influence of environmental factors by introducing glial cells isolated from the brain into the gut.
They will be working with a strong team of researchers, including Dr Theo Mantamadiotis, Dr Jarny Choi and Professor Alice Pébay from the University of Melbourne, Professor Kate Drummond, Director of Neurosurgery at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and Dr Meenakshi Rao from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.
“We’re very excited to use knowledge gained from studying the gut to build new targets for treating brain cancer” said Dr Marlene Hao.
Article by Helen Braybrook
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Dr Marlene Hao