For children with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), and for their families and friends, the diagnosis is devastating. DIPG offers no hope of survival. It is considered incurable.
DIPG typically affects children aged five to seven who are otherwise perfectly healthy. The duration of symptoms is very short and life expectancy is counted in months.
One of the problems facing researchers in the past was a lack of tumour samples. This was solved partly thanks to the work of Associate Professor David Ziegler, Group Leader of the Brain Tumours Group and his research team at Children’s Cancer Institute.
Read more: Behind the science: Professor David Ziegler.
Now research officer Dr Dannielle Upton, one of Ziegler’s trusted colleagues at Children’s Cancer Institute, is carrying out a study to further enhance knowledge around potential therapies to combat the aggressive cancer.
“Being able to biopsy tumours and learn more about them has meant research in Australia has started to take off,” Upton says. “We were the first group in Australia to start research into DIPG, and there are other groups now engaged in this research as well.”
“That’s important, because we really need to change the statistics from it being incurable, to not just prolonging life but curing this cancer as well.”
The long road to a research breakthrough
Previously Ziegler, Upton and their colleagues worked painstakingly through more than 3,500 clinically available drugs to test them against DIPG samples.
Most had no effect, but a few did. Of those few, some were unable to cross the blood brain barrier, so would be useless against DIPG. One drug that ticked all the boxes was Auranofin, originally developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
“I was sceptical, at first,” Upton admits. “We started in a culture dish, looking at whether it could inhibit growth of the DIPG cells, and it did. That was promising.
"We looked at it against healthy brain cells to check that it wouldn’t affect the healthy tissue around the tumour, and it didn’t.”