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Scientists identify link between brain development and cancer

Researchers at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Queensland Brain Institute have identified a protein which plays a key role in the development of brain cancer, opening the door to potential new treatments.

The scientists found that the NFIB protein, which regulates brain development before birth, can also affect the growth of brain cancer.

Dr Brett Stringer from QIMR Berghofer said that low levels of NFIB protein were correlated with the most deadly form of brain cancer – glioblastoma (GBM).

“Crucially, this study identified that increasing the level of NFIB in human brain cancer cells stopped the cancer from growing,” Dr Stringer said.

The discovery stems from decades of work in QBI Deputy Director Professor Linda Richards’ laboratory on the function of NFIB during brain development.

“In early brain development, this protein plays an important role in determining when cells stop proliferating, and instead become mature cells. It keeps the number of cells formed in the developing brain in check. We therefore wondered whether NFIB might function in the same way in brain tumours,” Professor Richards said.

Professor Richards recognised the link with brain cancer and teamed up with Professor Andrew Boyd and Dr Stringer at QIMR Berghofer to investigate further.

Dr Stringer found that levels of NFIB were highest in low-grade glioma and lowest in the most aggressive form of the cancer.

“Crucially, we found that the level of NFIB present in the brain tumour correlated directly with a patient’s survival. We also found that increasing the levels of NFIB, using drugs that are already available, slowed the growth of half of these brain cancers,” Dr Stringer said.

GBM is the most aggressive form of malignant brain tumour. Approximately 800 Australians are diagnosed with this cancer each year. Patients survive an average of 14 months from the time they are diagnosed.

This research was published in the journal Oncotarget and funded by Cancer Council Queensland, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.

Media contact: 

QIMR Berghofer – Siobhan Barry 0458 650 200

QBI – Kirsten MacGregor 0448 108 441