The whole body depends on the brain to function. So does our personality. That means that when you have a brain tumour and subsequent treatment or an operation, you don’t actually know what you are going to lose; you might lose the use of an arm, or your sight, or part of your personality or your hormone balance. And tragically that is the good news, if you manage to defy the odds and survive at all.

Around 16,000 people are diagnosed with a brain tumour every year.

The average five-year survival rate (the proportion of people who will still be alive five years after their first diagnosis) is just under twenty per cent, compared to an average of nearly 50% across all cancers. This is unacceptable!

Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under the age of 40. Brain tumours are also increasing; unlike most other cancers, a diagnosis of a brain tumour is more likely today than it was in the 1970s.  And the numbers of deaths resulting from a brain tumour are rising as well – 23% higher for men and 25% higher for women in 2012 than in 1970.

You can’t take generic cancer research and translate it into brain tumour research. Part of the difficulty is simply the situation of the tumour – the brain. It is insulated from the rest of the body by the ‘blood-brain barrier’, a layer of cells, which only lets certain chemicals through. Most of the time this is extremely useful; it means that the brain is protected. However, it also means that many of the standard cancer treatments cannot get through either.

There are over 120 types of brain tumour, making research all the more difficult in finding viable treatments. Furthermore, brain tumours are comprised of lots of different types of cells, which react differently to different forms of treatment. The cells that comprise other tumours are usually more uniform in their response to treatments. Many brain tumours are cellularly heterogeneous making them harder to treat. At the other extreme, all liver cells behave in the same way, so research into liver cancer treatment is less complicated in this regard.

 

Brain tumour research

 

Despite these challenges, a lot of encouraging work is going on at the moment. Research into two terrible childhood brain tumours has identified there are at least four sub-groups of this tumour type, which respond to different treatments. Rather than give all children the same treatment – which is extremely harsh, often leaving the child with a low quality of life because the treatment is so debilitating – we can treat them appropriately.

But we just don’t know enough about the biology of these tumours: Where do they originate? How do they develop? It is not this lack of knowledge that holds back researchers, but the fact that there is so little money available to unravel the complexities involved.

Survival rates for the cancers that have benefitted from 55% of the national spend on ‘site-specific’ cancer are much higher than brain tumours and that is not surprising. Getting from research to treatment takes time and it takes money. It involves proving a drug’s efficacy in the lab, in human-tissue models, and then in clinical trials. Each stage can cost thousands even millions of pounds. Research into brain tumours, by contrast, receives just 1% of the national spend on cancer research. Plugging the gap shouldn’t be left to charities; major funding is urgently needed from the government, larger cancer charities and major corporations.

Research into brain tumours receives just 1% of the national spend on cancer research

The whole field of ‘personalised medicine’ – testing each person’s cancer cells and seeing which specific drugs affect it  – is also lagging behind in the brain tumour research, even though science at large has revealed this should be a essential part of every cancer treatment today and tomorrow. But neuro-oncolgists in the UK are not being given access to the levels of funding required to test this approach adequately in order to move it to practice, despite everything being in place.

National charity Brain Tumour Research and its dedicated group of Member Charities are doing their best to help plug this gap by campaigning to raise awareness and funds. They support an annual £1 million programme of research at UK’s first dedicated Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence in the University of Portsmouth, and the charity has recently established new Centres in partnership the Plymouth University, Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College (in association with UCL) also in London. However, this is not nearly enough. We need an increase in government funding for research into brain cancer, bringing it into line with research into other cancers. Over the next 10 years, investment in the research needs to increase to around £30 to 35 million a year. If not, at this current rate of funding, it could take science another 100 years to find a cure.

Brain tumours are ripping lives and families apart, even more than other forms of cancer. Tackling it needs the sort of money that is spent on other cancers. Over the past decades, the number of children dying of leukaemia has halved. That’s what we want for brain tumour patients too. In the meantime, our friends working on the front line, the oncologists and surgeons will continue to have the conversations with many patients in which they say, unfortunately, there is very little that can be done.