One Researcher's Commitment to Finding a Cure

"It's always about the patients."

“Your child has a brain tumour.” – Six shocking words no parent should ever have to hear, and the impact of which can be devastating.

Calgary brain tumour researcher Dr. Aru NarendranFor Calgary researcher Dr. Aru Narendran, knowing first-hand what the brain tumour journey can mean for families motivates him to spend his days in a lab. There he and his team search for a cure for one of the most fatal types of malignant pediatric brain tumour, atypical teratoid/rhabdoid (AT/RT).

Absolute in his determination to eradicate childhood cancers, Dr. Narendran has a few choice words of his own for the illness. “I don’t see a reason why we can’t cure every single kid with cancer. We cured polio and other diseases completely, so it’s just a matter of time. It will happen.”

Dr. Narendran remembers a father who came to him several years ago, looking for a way to help his son who had stage four neuroblastoma. That encounter was a defining moment for the leading researcher. “It hit me hard. We should never have to tell a parent that the most they can do is keep their child comfortable so they can pass away peacefully. That’s not good enough.” From that point on, Dr. Narendran has devoted his hours to finding ways to bring treatments to patients faster and more effectively.

As the only Canadian member of POETIC, the international Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Investigators' Consortium, Dr. Narendran has had successful research breakthroughs with his novel approach to lab growing AT/RT brain tumour cells collected from the fluid that surrounds the brain – a first in the field of AT/RT research. Because of how rare the pediatric brain tumour is, there was little biological matter that could be used to study the tumour and potential treatments, Dr. Narendran explains. Now that these cells can be grown in a Petri dish, it opens the door to explore more possibilities to find a cure.

The Research

With his 2013 Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada Research Grant, made possible by the generosity of Saskatoon's Pink Warrior Foundation, Dr. Narendran and his University of Calgary team will use the lab-grown AT/RT cells to test an engineered small pox virus that can replicate and cause the tumour cells to break down while leaving non-malignant cells unaffected. And because individuals from the 1970s and onward were no longer vaccinated for small pox, children do not have active immunity to the non-infective virus so it will have a better chance of remaining in their systems long enough to attack the brain tumour.

Dr. Narendran says there is a layered advantage to this type of treatment. Not only does the therapy use a virus to destroy the cancer cells, but because the virus specifically requires cancer cells for its survival, it can be targeted directly to the tumour rather than surrounding healthy cells – something that isn’t as straightforward with some radiation or chemotherapy. This targeting means that there could be fewer side effects from treatment. “Chemotherapy will likely always be a tool in our kit to fight cancer, as will radiation. My hope is that the virus therapy might prove useful as another way to treat the disease. We need complicated treatments for complicated cancers,” he adds.

Another advantage of the virus therapy is that cancers in general possess ways to evade a patient’s immune system, so when the virus infects the tumour, the immune system wakes up to recognize the tumour. It’s a radical approach and gives an additional advantage that Dr. Narendran hopes will be the answer to curing difficult tumours such as AT/RT.

Reflecting on his research and personal experiences, Dr. Narendran says it’s the patients and families that keep him going, and that his efforts can’t compare to the immense challenges they face on the journey with a brain tumour. It’s their strength that pushes him to keep looking for new ways to treat children and improve their quality of life.

“We have to have hope, and we should not accept anything less than a 100 per cent cure. Ninety-nine per cent is never enough, because what if that one person was your loved one?”

To find out how you can help fund research like Dr. Narendran's, please contact:

Suzanne Fratschko Elliott
Fundraising Manager
1-800-265-5106 or 519-642-7755, ext. 227

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