A new direction for brain cancer research

Dr Marlene Hao from the School of Biomedical Sciences has won a grant focusing on brain cancer research from Cure Cancer Australia.

A research grant from Cure Cancer Australia has been awarded to Dr Marlene Hao (The Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience) towards her investigation of the genetic differences between types of glial cells found in numerous parts of the human body.

Her research

Dr Marlene Hao’s research group at the University of Melbourne is centred around the enteric nervous system, which is responsible for controlling the movement of contents through the gut. “This sounds like it’s far removed from cancer research,” says Marlene, “but we believe knowledge from our field will help find new targets for the treatment of brain cancer.

“Remarkably,” says Marlene, an Australian Research Council Research Fellow at the university’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, “gliomas in the gut are very rare, and more than ninety-five per cent of tumours in the bowel are benign. This key difference raises a fascinating question: what is unique about enteric glial cells that protect them from developing aggressive cancers?” 

Dr Marlene Hao holding a slide in a laboratory

To help find the answer, Marlene is investigating the genetic differences between the two types of glial cells, with the hope of finding a gene, or gene family, that has a strong relationship with the occurrence of the cells’ metastasis. She is also investigating the influence of environmental factors on cancer by introducing glia cells isolated from the brain into the gut.

By understanding the difference between the gut and brain glial cells, she hopes to gain fresh knowledge about how gliomas form. Marlene and her team can use this information to find new targets for treatment and develop new therapies for the aggressive brain cancer. We also aim to test the newly identified targets by introducing them into glioma cells and see whether they curb the cancer’s aggressive nature, Marlene says.

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