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Using the body clock to help beat brain tumours

The clocks go back on Sunday if you live in Europe (if you're reading this in North America, you've got an extra week). While you might be relishing the thought of an extra hour in bed, you may be disappointed to find you wake up extra early instead. Or if you have young children, who, like mine, will be blissfully unaware they should have slept an extra hour, you might even find yourself awake at 5:30.

If your kids wake up after the same amount of sleep as normal, regardless of the time on your watch, the body clock is probably to blame. The body clock drives our circadian (24 hour) or biological rhythms, and these rhythms are present in nearly all the cells of our body. They help us adapt to the predictable daily changes in light, temperature and environmental conditions.

Earlier this year we awarded funding to Professor Satchi Panda at the Salk Institute in California for his work on circadian rhythms.

“But what does this have to do with cancer?” you may ask.

Professor Panda explains “A prolonged disruption of our body clock – for example in shift work – has recently been confirmed as a new cancer risk factor by the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer. Genes control our circadian rhythms, and they regulate several basic functions of cells, including energy usage, interaction with their environment, the way they respond to DNA damage, and cell division. These processes are also disrupted in cancer. Therefore, altering the body clock genes could be a new way to kill cancer cells. However, this concept has never been exploited for to make new anticancer therapies.”

Professor Panda wants to test whether this could provide a new avenue to treat the most aggressive brain cancer: glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). GBM has poor survival rates, it develops resistance to current treatments and it often reoccurs. Previous studies have shown that stem cells within GBM tumours are one way the cancer returns, so they are a crucial target for developing new treatments.

“GBM stem cells have disrupted circadian rhythms, yet the activity of some of the clock genes continues. We recently saw that interrupting clock genes with drugs can trigger a set of changes that cause only GBM stem cells to die, sparing the normal cells” says Professor Panda.

“GBM stem cells are also more sensitive to these clock drugs than the current drugs on the market.”

In order to test whether these drugs could be used to treat people with GBM, Professor Panda and his team will study how efficient the drugs are, using tumour samples taken from glioblastoma patients. They will also test them in combination with other standard cancer drugs.

He hopes his study will provide a previously unknown strategy for treating GBM, and open the road for a new type of cancer drug. We hope so too.

If you are woken up extra-early on Sunday, just remember that the body clock is also being used to try to find a new way to treat a very aggressive form of brain cancer. Maybe it’s not all bad.

To help be the answer to cancer, by supporting research like Professor Panda’s work, please text WORLDWIDE to 70004 to donate £10.

Image courtesy of, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0).

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