GRANTS. As the recipient of the Senior Investigator Award, Helena Carén, team leader at Sahlgrenska Cancer Center, is receiving funding for six years of salary by the Swedish Cancer Society. She is developing methods based on DNA methylation for use in diagnosing different types of tumors.
Helena Carén is thrilled by the grant, which will provide financial stability to focus on her research in the coming years: “The Swedish Cancer Society places high demands on the research it funds, and we also see the award as confirmation that our work is important and that we are performing well.”
Classifying brain tumors
Carén is leading a team with around 10 members at Sahlgrenska Cancer Center. The team uses both cell cultures and animal experiments in their research on brain tumors. Cancer stem cells are isolated from tissue taken from patients who have had brain tumors surgically removed. The team uses these cancer stem cells to understand why they are formed and how different treatments can influence them.
The team has also developed a tool for classifying and diagnosing brain tumors and has been conducting a national study for a few years on using the tool to determine what type of brain tumor a child has.
“The tool is based on analysis of methylation patterns in tumor DNA. All tissue and cells in the body have specific methylation patterns that control what proteins are formed and, in a tumor cell, can indicate what cell the tumor originates from and what type of cancer it is.”
Helena Carén has established fruitful collaborations with neurosurgeons, pathologists, oncologists and pediatricians at Sahlgrenska University Hospital.
“The excellent collaborations we have and my fantastic team enable us to take on interesting and important research questions. These collaborations give us access to tumor tissue from children who have had brain tumors removed.”
Analysis of methylation patterns in tumor cells has resulted in a bioinformatic method used to estimate how similar an unknown sample is to previously analyzed and identified samples. This allows identification of the tumor type. The method works well and the next step is to make it available clinically.
“There remain a number of practical issues to solve, like how to organize the work and how financing will work. Sahlgrenska University Hospital’s unit for clinical molecular pathology is involved in the ongoing study, and I hope the analyses can be transferred to them when the study is completed.”
Being able to classify different brain tumors improves the ability to develop treatments specifically adapted to that type of tumor. Some brain tumor diagnoses already have specific treatments, and in those cases patients can immediately benefit from the method.
“Medulloblastoma, which is the most common form of malignant brain tumor in children and which originates in the smaller cerebellum, is one such example. A patient’s treatment is determined by the subgroup of medulloblastoma.”
In addition to providing a diagnosis, methylation patterns can also be used as prognostic and predictive biomarkers and to increase our understanding of why genes are expressed incorrectly in tumor cells. Last year, the team published a scientific article based on samples taken from different areas in the same tumor, where they showed that the cells’ methylation pattern differed within the same tumor. These differences do not influence the diagnosis that is based on the methylation pattern but they do influence specific genes. One such gene is MGMT. It’s methylation pattern is currently used within clinical diagnostics for determining treatment of certain patient groups.
“This is something we need to continue studying. We have now shown that there is a heterogeneity in terms of methylation patterns in tumors, and this can raise questions about what role these patterns have in the development of tumors and how it can contribute to tumor growth, aggressiveness and resistance to treatment.”
Three appointed to postdoctoral positions
The Swedish Cancer Society’s grants included funding for three additional researcher positions at that University of Gothenburg. Elin Bernson, MD Badrul Arefin and Naga Venkata Akule have been appointed to postdoctoral positions with three years of funding.
TEXT: ELIN LINDSTRÖM