Looking for ways to improve diagnosis, treatment and recovery from brain cancer

May 19 2020

Radiation oncologist Dr Mike Fay. Mike is a Mark Hughes Foundation Fellow who's working on a range of studies to defeat brain cancer. Brain cancer is a particularly deadly disease, with some variations having a 99% mortality rate after five years. 

Mike defines brain cancer as The Perfect Storm because the skull limits the brain's ability to swell, so once a tumour starts to develop, pressure goes up - and oxygen goes down. Low levels of oxygen not only impair treatment options, they also cause a range of side effects. These include headache, confusion, shortness of breath and dizziness - and are usually the first sign that people have that they have a brain tumour. 

Brain tumours are particularly challenging to treat because of the complexity of the brain. When a surgeon goes in to operate on a tumour, they have one chance to get it right - and often it's just too difficult to attempt. That's why research into the structure and nature of brain cancer is so important.

It's difficult to diagnose what type of brain cancer a person has without undergoing surgery, however, one of Mike's studies is aiming to improve diagnosis of brain cancer. Following on from the theory that DNA from brain cancers circulate throughout the body, Mike is currently exploring how this DNA can be accessed and used as a diagnostic tool to help develop better treatment options for people with brain cancer. If they can find the DNA and analyse it - clinicians can then make earlier intervention and treatment options to shrink or maintain the size of the tumour - improving patient outcomes.

One of cancer's greatest challenges is treatment resistance - where a regular drug or treatment either stops working - or doesn't work at all. We know that cancer is smart, and tends to disguise itself, hide, and make changes to itself to evade treatment. But with dedication, researchers are slowly working out ways to defeating it. Often these answers are found in research into other kinds of cancer. While each type of cancer is unique, there are similarities which can lead to better outcomes.

Mike is currently working on a study where he's taking success in prostate cancer research and applying it to glioblastoma - a particularly deadly form of brain cancer. They're using PSMA-PET scans to lead to better treatment for glioblastoma by using a radioactive tracer to target protein present on the cancer cells - making it more visible, and easier to treat. This method uses a 'smart bomb' - a molecular targeting radiation treatment that accurately targets the tumour, without damaging the tissue (brain!) around it. It's absolutely fascinating how it works!

Mike's work takes place in the Hunter, at HMRI and at Genesis Cancer Care - but the knowledge gained and techniques used are spreading across the country - and around the world. Using tissue and other samples from the Mark Hughes Foundation Brain Cancer Biobank, Mike is working with his colleagues to diagnose, treat and manage brain cancer more effectively to improve outcomes for people living with brain cancer.

Listen to Mike's chat with ABC Newcastle's Kia Handley here