A Closer Look at Brain Cancer

To mark Brain Tumour Awareness Week from October 26th – November 2nd, we’re taking a look at the difference between benign and malignant brain tumours, as well as risk factors, symptoms and treatment of brain cancers and the research being carried out by one exceptional Cure Cancer funded researcher.

A brain tumour diagnosis can be scary, but it’s important to remember that there is a huge amount of variation when it comes to brain tumours. In fact, there are over 150 types of brain tumour, and only around half of these are cancerous.

Brain tumours are graded 1-4 depending on their speed of growth and how likely they are to spread. Grades 3 and 4 are defined as cancerous because the cells grow more rapidly and are more likely to spread within the brain.

An estimated 1,879 people in Australia will be diagnosed with brain cancer this year. Approximately 60% of these will be male. Around 1,500 people will die from brain cancer this year.

Brain cancer can spread to other parts of the brain or to the spine, but rarely spreads to other parts of the body. If cancerous cells develop elsewhere in the body first and then spread to the brain, this is called secondary brain cancer or metastases.

Most brain cancers have spread from other tumors in the body, such as breast and lung cancers, malignant melanoma and blood cell cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Some brain tumours start in the cells that support the nerve cells of the brain, where they can crowd out normal cells and spread to other locations. These tumours can cause problems in other parts of the body because of the pressure they put on the brain.

Who is at risk of developing brain cancer?

Most of the time, the cause of brain cancer is unknown. However, there are some risk factors that may increase your risk of brain cancer, including:

  • Brain tumours are more common in children and older adults, although people of any age can develop them.
  • Men are more likely than women to develop a brain tumour. However, some specific types of brain tumours are more common in women.
  • A small percentage of brain tumours may be linked to hereditary genetic factors or conditions
  • Serious head injuries may be linked to the later development of brain tumours. A history of seizures has also been linked with brain tumours.
  • High exposure to radiation of the head

Symptoms of Brain Cancer

Headaches are often the first symptom of a brain tumour. Other symptoms may include:

  • Weakness or paralysis in part of the body
  • Loss of balance
  • General irritability, drowsiness or a change in personality
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disturbed vision, hearing, smell or taste

Diagnosing Brain Cancer

If a brain tumour is suspected, your doctor will look at things like reflexes, muscle strength, balance and coordination, ability to feel pin-pricks and distinguish between hot and cold, to check how different parts of the brain are functioning.

The main tests for brain cancer diagnosis include:

  • CT scan - x-rays to take multiple pictures of the inside of the body
  • MRI scan - imaging scan using a computer and a powerful magnet to make cross-sectional pictures of your body
  • MRS scan - looks for changes in the chemical make-up of the brain
  • PET scan - a small amount of radioactive solution is injected to show up cancer cells
  • SPECT scan - takes 3D images of blood flow in the brain. Areas with higher blood flow, such as a tumour, will be brighter on the scan
  • Lumbar puncture - a needle is used to collect cerebrospinal fluid which will be sent to a laboratory to test for cancer cells

How is Brain Cancer Treated?

Brain cancers may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, steroid therapy, or a combination of these treatments. However, treatment can be challenging.

Some tumours can be removed completely by surgery, but this can be difficult if the tumor is near a delicate part of the brain or spinal cord. Sometimes, parts of the tumor may be too small to be seen or removed during surgery.

The brain is resistant to some types of chemotherapy. Post-operative radiotherapy improves local control and survival, but radiation therapy can also damage healthy tissue.

If a tumour cannot be removed, the aim of treatment is to slow growth and relieve symptoms by shrinking it and reducing swelling.

Brain Cancer Research in Australia

Dr Marlene Hao – A New Direction for Brain Cancer Research

Though there have been improvements in diagnosis, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, survival rates for brain cancer are still low.

An Australian Research Council Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, Dr Marlene Hao’s research is centered 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.’

Dr Hao’s research focuses on gliomas; an aggressive form of brain cancer which make up most malignant primary brain tumours. They grow rapidly, can spread from the initial site and are often life-threatening.

Typically, gliomas arise from mutations that affect glial cells or stem cells found in the brain. Yet glial cells are found throughout the nervous system, including the enteric nervous system in the gut. These gut glial cells, known as enteric glia, share many similarities with brain glia.

‘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 into aggressive cancers?’

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. The team is also investigating the influence of environmental factors on cancer by introducing glial cells isolated from the brain into the gut.

By understanding the difference between the gut and brain glial cells, they hope to gain fresh knowledge about how gliomas form and 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,’ says Marlene.

‘We want our research to help families and prevent early deaths. That’s why we work so hard to try to understand the mechanisms of how our body works. It’s very rewarding to be able to use the knowledge to help patients who are suffering.’

To support lifesaving brain cancer research like Dr Marlene Hao’s, please make a donation today.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of brain cancer, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Schedule an appointment with your GP to get some tests and put your mind at rest. The fastest and easiest way to search for and book healthcare appointments online is through MyHealth1st.  





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