The research team hopes to harness the power of certain viruses that can kill cancerous cells without harming healthy ones.
Such viruses target and ‘invade’ tumour cells, multiplying inside the invaded cell until it bursts and is destroyed.
They can also be primed with anti-cancer drugs to boost their destructive potential as they home in on tumour cells.
The University of Leeds researchers want to find out whether these cancer-killing or ‘oncolytic’ viruses can reach tumours in the brain even if they are injected into the bloodstream elsewhere.
If they can breach the so-called blood/brain barrier, it would represent a significant advance in treating tumours that are notoriously hard to reach.
The £3 million study, co-funded by a £1.5 million grant from The Brain Tumour Charity, will look specifically at the effect of the viruses on the most common type of fast-growing malignant brain tumour, known as a high-grade astrocytoma.
This kind of tumour can affect children and adults and there are currently few effective treatments.
Professor Susan Short, who is leading the five-year project at the Leeds Centre for Translational Neuro-Oncology, says the research could benefit patients who are hardest to treat.
“Since these viruses are non-toxic, they could be appropriate in situations in which standard treatment is difficult – for example, in young children or older people,” she said.
Professor Short and her team will also investigate ways of ‘switching off’ the mechanism by which brain cancer cells repair themselves and reappear after radiotherapy.
This part of their research involves drugs that are already used safely on patients with other conditions, so they could be used to treat brain tumours within the next five years.
In addition, the team will explore whether drug treatments for tumours can be carried to relatively inaccessible parts of the brain by normal developing blood cells.
Taken together, says Professor Short, the three research strands funded by The Brain Tumour Charity hold out the prospect of real improvements in brain tumour treatment.
“We are well aware that there aren’t enough clinical studies for brain tumour patients.
“There are a lot of patients who are very keen to help us test new treatments but we need some new ideas to move from the lab into the clinic.
“So the first thing we want to achieve with this research programme is to provide some new ideas that we can use in a clinical environment.”
The Leeds grant is part of a wider £10 million investment programme for brain tumour research in the UK. Half of the total funding (£5 million) will come from The Brain Tumour Charity and half from other sources.
Neil Dickson, vice-chair of The Brain Tumour Charity, described the investment as a major milestone in brain tumour research.
“We are absolutely delighted that The Brain Tumour Charity has been able to award funding for these research projects, which we hope will bring about much-needed improvements in the understanding and treatment of brain tumours.
“This level of spending on brain tumour research is unprecedented in the UK. It has been made possible by our dedicated supporters and fundraisers around the country, many of whom have personal experience of the devastating effects of a brain tumour.”
For more information on the research, contact The Brain Tumour Charity on 01252 413164 or 07990 828385.