Pediatric brain research pushed forward with Dayton living tumor bank

Keeping brain tumors alive for research changes that dynamic. The researchers can essentially “wake up” and grow the tissue they have stored in liquid nitrogen.

One tumor in the hospital biobank can expand to 100 tumors or more. That tumor can be shared time and time again with researchers around the world.

‘They are immortal. They will now grow to the end of time,’ Lober said.

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To start

A challenging paradox is that brain cancer is both the No. 1 cause of disease-related death in children, but is still rare enough that it is difficult to determine which treatment is working.

Brain cancer is not a monolith, and of the 5,000 cases per year found in American children, different types of tumors are found in different parts of the brain and central nervous system that progress differently and respond differently to treatment.

“When you say the words ‘brain tumors,’ you’re really not talking about just a single disease,” said Dr. Adam Resnick of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, co-scientific chair of the Children’s Brain Tumor Network.

The relatively small patient market has not sparked much interest in private pharmaceutical research, and pediatric brain cancer research receives a fraction of the overall 4% of the National Institute of Health’s funds earmarked for childhood cancer.

The number of children with brain cancer also means that even in major health systems, doctors can only see a handful of children each year with a certain type of brain cancer.

All of that has translated into decades of little progress. No drug has ever been developed and approved specifically for malignant brain tumors in children.

At Dayton Children’s living biobank, the tumors they remove from children are cultured in a dish so that one tumor can grow to 100 tumors or more. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

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The Dayton biobank is part of the Children’s Brain Tumor Network, which has built new infrastructure to accelerate research.

It takes a lot of groups coming together to share a lot of data to understand what could actually help these children. The network helped build platforms that allow researchers around the world to access large collections of brain tumor data.

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“The kind of information you can get from biospecimens is very diverse,” Resnick said. “Integrating that data with clinical history, and patient and treatment outcome requires many domains, stakeholders and experts.”

Treating diseases that are not common in any hospital means that researchers and clinicians must share in ways that are sometimes against the culture of academic medicine.

“For the network to be successful, we need people like Robert at Dayton Children’s who really adopt a new model of academic research, committed to sharing and accessing data and specimens without possible personal credit,” Resnick said.

tumor donations

Among the first brain tumor tissue to be added to the biobank was a donation from a Champaign County family. Blake Barr was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer in 2016 at the age of 10.

The softball-sized tumor had apparently grown in a few months. He received care at both Dayton Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and was declared cancer-free in the spring of 2017.

“I’ll never forget looking at that image—something in Blake that should never be in a child,” his mother Amberly Barr had said when asked about the family’s experiences. “Donating to science brings a sense of comfort that it doesn’t stop here. We gain insight to prevent and stop childhood cancer and brain tumors. It creates hope for a whole range of families.”

Trisha Faris, neurosurgical assistant and research assistant, spends time with families explaining what they do with the donated tissue, and families have all said yes to donating the tumors so far. Some families have come down and visited the facility.

The lab’s work and collection has grown, and the team is also accepting specimens from other areas.

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Through the A Gift From a Child initiative, families of children who die of brain cancer can ask to donate their brains and deliver them to the lab. This happened about a month ago in the middle of the night when researchers were called and the cells were harvested.

“This kid is now going to find a way to hopefully heal other kids,” Lober said.

dr. Robert Lober points to an image of a high-grade glioma of a child who did not survive, which was donated as part of the biobank. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

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Biobank one of the many steps required

The tumors that grow into more tumors are sent through the Children’s Brain Tumor Network partners and to labs around the world. They have recently been shipped to Australia, New Jersey and St. Louis.

The approach is new in many respects. The team is learning the best “recipes” every day for growing specific tumors in a culture.

Low-grade gliomas are both notoriously difficult to treat and difficult to grow in a dish. However, Chanel Keoni, coordinator of Dayton Children’s neuroscience lab, finds success with a prescription.

In addition to Lober, Keoni, and Faris, there are Pinki Chowdhury, a biomedical scientist, and Christopher Waker, a graduate student and research assistant, among others.

The Gala of Hope Foundation – a local cancer fundraiser – raised the seed money to start the biobank at Dayton Children’s.

“This is fully supported by the community. This is happening here. And it’s actionable data that impacts the way we treat patients,” Lober said.

Chanel Keoni, coordinator of Dayton Children’s neuroscience lab, designed the lab layout and is working on recipes for growing specific tumors in cultures. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

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After collecting and sharing the specimens, the next layer is to explore and try new therapies and treatments.

Resnick said while going through graduate school, the pipeline from the lab to impact in a patient could take 20 years. But that has changed dramatically because of the kind of large-scale data one can generate from biospecimens, and the new capacity to query that data and relate it to the patients before them, Resnick said.

“Time is the one variable that patients and families care about most and that they don’t have when your child is sick. And that’s a very different model of doing research than the pre-2005 model,” he said.

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