New childhood cancer research could help prevent 50% of cases

A new discovery could lead to preventative treatments for embryonal cancer cells which are responsible for more than half of all childhood cancers.

Typically, only 20% of the embryonal cells created in the womb survive after birth to form nerve tissue in a baby’s body. The rest die off before the child is born.

However, sometimes excess cells survive and develop into cancers.

Under the leadership of Professor Glenn Marshall, Head of Translational Research and Molecular Carcinogenesis at the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia (CCIA), researchers have investigated this occurrence, focusing on the most common solid tumour cancer in early childhood – neuroblastoma.

They found a gene called Bmi1 present at abnormally high levels in the embryonal cells which survive beyond birth.

“Many of our normal cells are tested every day by cancerous insults, but they possess an internal barrier to cancer, the p53 protein, which switches on the self-destruct mechanism as soon as the cell is threatened in this way,” said Professor Marshall.

“Our work shows that embryonal cancer cells have this p53 cancer barrier switched off by Bmi1, immediately making it susceptible to cancerous insults.

“From here we look at two things,” Professor Marshall said. “Developing a blood test at birth to detect if these embryonal cells are present in the baby, and finding drugs that can ‘switch on’ the p53 protein and reactive the ‘cancer barrier’.”

This study marks the success of a huge collaborative effort, including over 23 authors and world-class cancer researchers. Their work is ground-breaking as it applies to other embryonal child cancers such as medulloblastoma, a paediatric brain tumour, and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

The findings have now been published in the international cancer journal, Oncogene.

To view the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia (an ACRF-funded facility) media release, please click here.