In 2018, Dr Guillermo Gomez was the recipient of a $400,000 Cure Brain Cancer Foundation Infrastructure Grant. The purpose of this grant was to give Dr Gomez and his team at the University of South Australia the resources required to develop and grow “mini-brains”, or more accurately brain organoids, in the lab.
These organoids are grown from real brain cells and mimic the biology of a real brain. These “mini-brains” have been shared with brain cancer researchers across the country and enable scientists to test the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments in a structure with all the similarities of a real brain, as opposed to a single layer of individual cells in a dish. This means that things like blood vessels, which nourish tumours, the blood brain barrier that has a unique ability to stop drugs penetrating the brain, and the effects of other brain cells can all be assessed more quickly and accurately than ever before.
animal models play an intrinsic role in cancer research, they often do not
reflect what may happen in the human brain.
“One of the main things that brain organoids have is the complexity of the brain tissue with a human genetic background,” says Dr Gomez. “We have developed so many strategies that cure the cancer in mice, but these failed when translated to humans and we hope we can fill a gap in this area.”
Two years on and this investment in the work of Dr Gomez and his “mini-brains” is transforming brain cancer research in Australia and having a real impact on people living with the disease.
His collaborations with clinicians and neurosurgeons at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre have improved the treatment of patients with glioblastoma - one of the most common and deadly forms of brain cancer. “For many patients, this put hope back on the agenda,” he says.
The organoids have allowed physicians and researchers at these institutions to gain a better understanding of how quickly and aggressively a patient’s tumour is likely to progress by injecting the tumour into their “natural” environment. By doing this, scientists can better identify and assess drugs that may target brain cancer cells and the associated genes involved.
Every brain cancer can be different from the next, in fact, it is one of the most diverse cancers known. This is especially true if it is a glioblastoma, the most common and lethal in young Australians. Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s support of this project has allowed these “mini-brains” to be used to personally screen an individual’s unique tumour by enabling scientists to test treatments in a replica of the patient’s brain, allowing for the best possible outcome.
These “mini-brains” greatly enhance our scientists ability to look at the biology of these tumours, observing how they interact with “normal” brain tissue that they infiltrate and that surrounds the tumour (known as the micro-environment). This is now being explored as part of a national effort involving collaborations with the Australia Living Organoid Alliance and Brain Cancer Biobanking Australia. It also involves collaborations with fellow Cure Brain Cancer Foundation grant recipients Prof. Hui Gan (Director of Clinical Trials at Austin Health in Melbourne and Chair of the COGNO Scientific Advisory Committee), Prof. Bryan Day at Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, and Associate Prof. Leonie Quinn at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra). Prof. Mark Gilbert from the CERN Foundation in the US is also using Dr Gomez’s mini brains to identify promising new drugs for the treatment of GBM.
“Progress like this is only possible thanks to the generosity of our incredible donors, who enable us to back brilliant researchers like Dr Gomez,” says Dr Robert Rapkins, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s Head of Research. “The aim of this particular grant round was to rapidly increase brain cancer research capacity in Australia to more quickly find cures for brain cancer, which kills more than 1,500 Australians each year. We’re encouraging more world-class researchers to work in brain cancer, while increasing the resources at their disposal.”
To date, so many medical experiments have failed due to the inability to translate what we see in animal models to what actually occurs in humans. Dr Gomez’s “mini-brains” represent a tremendous step in rectifying this and combatting this terrible disease.
Help fund even more ground-breaking research