Stars under the microscope

The University of Wolverhampton had obviously scrubbed-up for our visit.

Or at least that’s what I thought. As we entered the gleaming glass entrance, my brother and I were welcomed by vibrant and youthful students, wearing Welcome to Wolverhampton T-shirts and shiny white-toothed grins on their faces.

It turned out my visit there coincided with one of the University’s open days for prospective students. Once I’d explained my intended destination, they directed me straight past the gleaming computer rooms, modern cafe and conference room full of bustle, and we were spat out the other side of the glamour into a long grey corridor.

We followed the signs, up various stairs, and creaking through metal door after metal door, eventually reaching a tiny laboratory: a bedroom-sized hotchpotch of benches, sinks, fridges, phials of strange liquids and toxic waste bins.

This tiny space, it turns out, is pretty much the sum total of the University of Wolverhampton’s Neuro-Oncology Research Centre, funded by the Brain Tumour Charity.

My brother and I had come for a tour of the lab, to learn more about the ground breaking brain tumour research going on there.

What that really meant was that ten of us donned white coats and squeezed ourselves around a couple of laboratory benches that, alone, serve as the forefront of brain tumour research in this part of the West Midlands.

Yet, it was a heartening visit.

It is a cliché to claim brain tumours have often been the Cinderella of cancer research: left getting dusty in the corner, while more glamorous cancers go to the scientific balls and win all the prizes.

But we heard from scientists at the lab that, for the first time in decades, now was a very exciting time to ‘be in brain tumours’.

“We’re just coming to where breast cancer was 10 years ago,” the department head said.

My visit came hot on the heals of news out of this very lab that a drug used for 60 years to treat alcoholics, might be effective in helping to treat the most common form of adult brain tumour.

Another scientist talked of huge progress being made in the genetic mapping of brain tumours, and that evidence may be emerging of an ability to use genetic manipulation to treat them.

Most of the science went over my head, but the general gist was clear: treating cancer is all about genetics these days, and in brain tumours the challenge is to find the genetic markers, and the protein pathways they code, that start and stop tumour growth.

Find a molecule that matches those genetic markers and pathways, then build it into a drug, and you may be able to switch tumour growth on and off at will.

The news is good, but this is petri-dish science. However effective in little glass jars, the researchers told us that we already know the molecules they’re currently using won’t work in the brain.

The challenge is to find drugs, with similar molecular structures, that have been effective for other conditions in the brain like Alzheimers’, and tweak them using the knowledge they’ve accumulated.

We then heard from a PHD student working specifically on my kind of tumour: low grade glioma.

My heart beat just a little faster as we were ushered into a cupboard and shown LGG tumour cells through a microscope. I recognised their distinctive starfish shape; black dots with arms reaching out. Almost beautiful.

“If LGG cells grow so slowly,” I asked, not unmotivated by presence of slow-growing glioma cells in my own brain, “how do you manage to cultivate them in a petri-dish?”

“They do grow slowly,” said the PHD student. “If they were other brain tumour cells, this bottle might be full of cancer cells within a week. With low grade, it would take six weeks to fill the space available.”

I can’t say I was reassured that the slow pace was quite slow enough for me. But I was impressed that at least one person in the UK was writing their doctorate on how my type of tumour might be stopped in its tracks.

What I took away from that tiny lab, on the third floor of an ageing building, tucked between St Peter’s Church and the Wolves football ground, was the painfully slow, painfully methodical progress of this kind of cancer research.

When the scientists there spoke of breakthroughs, they spoke in decades, not months or even years.

In this lab, only the first of four stages of cancer research takes place: samples and chemicals, petri-dishes and drop-pipettes. A breakthrough here really means a potential treatment might just reach the next stage: to be tested on rats or mice.

It must be frustrating for the scientists here to see the small steps made in labs like these blown out of all proportion by journalists claiming this or that substance might cure cancer.

It must be frustrating for them to see alternative-medicine practitioners and snake-oil sellers making overblown claims for their own ‘natural’ remedies, without any of the painstaking hours, and paperwork, and bureaucracy, and frustrations that the real science has to go through.

But I also came away feeling it was indeed a good time to be in brain tumours.

The financial crisis, it seems, has led to drugs companies sharing clinical trial data with each other and with labs like this, meaning the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented all the time.

The search for a molecule that may work similarly to the one showing promise in petri-dishes here could be made that little bit easier and quicker, as a result.

And all of this is going on right now, behind the scenes in labs, universities and research centres the world over. Most often quietly, without claims for glory or recognition.

The scientists we met were clearly excited about and proud of their work, but they were modest and self-effacing. Embarrassed to blow their own trumpet.

As someone who has, almost for over a year now, benefited directly from work going on over decades in labs just like this one, I left in awe of the quiet dignified work of the women and men in the white coats.

In 10 years’ time, if not before, lives will be extended – perhaps even saved – by the work taking place on these very benches, under these very microscopes.

To the scientists and the PHD students, to the charities that fund labs like this, and the committed fundraisers and generous donors that fund the charities, a visit like the one my brother and I experienced can result in only one, simple, heartfelt response.

Just in case no-one else has said it lately: thank you.

3 Comments

  1. And a heart felt thank you from their Mum too. Similar work must have led to the procedures and drugs which saved one son’s life, it may be too much to expect that the work in our home town could contribute to extending the second’s. I forgot to say thanks the first time. I will always be grateful.

  2. Decades. Hard to accept but that is better than no progress and it is great to hear that information is being shared and progress is being made.

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