GMRI research potentially life-changing, says Wellington neurosurgeon


Dr Agadha Wickremesekera

People with brain cancer could have better chances of survival thanks to preliminary research the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute (GMRI) has conducted into cancer stem cells in brain tumours, says Dr Agadha Wickremesekera, a neurosurgeon at the Wellington Regional Hospital and an honorary research associate of the GMRI.

GMRI Executive Director, Dr Swee Tan, Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Tinte Itinteang, and fellow staff, in conjunction with Dr Wickremesekera, have been scrutinising the role of stem cells in one of the most common and aggressive brain tumours, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).

Dr Wickremesekera presented the research to this year’s Neurosurgical Society of Australasia’s Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney and the Congress of Neurosurgery in San Diego, held in September.

“We have suspected for some time that cancer stem cells are the main culprits causing brain tumours, and we believe they are the reason the cancer keeps recurring after treatment,” Dr Wickremesekera says.

“As doctors we remove these tumours as far as we can see with the help of a very high powered microscope, and then give radiotherapy for six weeks followed by chemotherapy for six months with a drug called temozolomide, but invariably the GBM grows back within two years.

“If we can control cancer stem cells in GBM, potentially by manipulating the pathways that control the cancer stem cells, we could come up with a more effective way to improve patients’ quality of life and survival rate.

“To paraphrase my colleagues at the GMRI, we have to target the ‘queen bees’ rather than the ‘worker bees’ if we are to have a lasting effect.”

While Dr Wickremesekera has always been interested in applying new methods to improve patients’ quality of life, he says the collaborative research would not have been possible without the involvement of the GMRI.

“The GMRI’s expert staff and state-of-the-art laboratory facilities certainly make this project possible and open so many doors for cancer research,” he says.

“Their work is based on a fundamental paradigm change in the nature of cancer research – now we’re seriously looking at cancer stem cells, where the cancer may actually start.

“It’s humbling to be involved in projects that focus on working out how GBMs occur. Finding GBM cancer stem cell proteins that may control their behaviour will help patients.”

A paper on the identification and characterisation of cancer stem cells in GBM by the team at the GMRI was published in August in the prestigious journal Frontiers in Surgery – Neurosurgery. Titled ‘Cancer Stem Cells in Glioblastoma Multiforme’, it has been viewed almost 650 times since publication.

A further paper on the team’s discovery of the regulatory system associated with cancer stem cells in GBM was also published in the same journal in September.

Titled ‘Cancer Stem Cells in Glioblastoma Multiforme Expresses Components of the Renin-Angiotensin System’, this has been viewed 270 times since it was published.

“We are excited that these discoveries have the potential to translate into a novel and effective treatment for GBM,” says Dr Swee Tan.

Dr Wickremesekera is optimistic about the next phase in researching cancer stem cells in GBM as the team looks to characterise their behaviour and how they can be controlled.

“The novel data we have found naturally takes us in different and exciting research directions,” he says.

“Maintaining a sustainable collaborative scientific approach to finding how cancer stem cells cause cancers such as GBM or other tumours remains a critical challenge.”