Brain cancer

120 cases of brain cancer diagnosed in children & adolescents in Australia each year.

55% survival rate in children under 5. Some forms of brain cancer have no treatment options.

Challenge in treating brain cancer is penetrating the blood-brain barrier.

What is brain cancer?

There are many different types of cancer that grow in the brain.

When cells grow out of control in the brain, they usually form a solid mass or tumour (US spelling: tumor). This is called a brain tumour.

Some people think ‘brain tumour’ and ‘brain cancer’ are the same thing. But there is a difference. Some tumours are non-cancerous (benign). It is only when a brain tumour is cancerous that it is called brain cancer.

How common is brain cancer in children?

Brain cancer is one of the most common childhood cancers, with about 120 cases diagnosed in children and adolescents each year in Australia.

Brain cancer is also one the deadliest childhood cancers. In fact, it causes more deaths in children than any other type of cancer. Sadly, children with the worst survival rate (about 55%) are those younger than 5 years old.

What happens when a child gets brain cancer?

Symptoms of brain cancer vary, depending on where the tumour is growing. Two common types of brain cancer in children are glioma and medulloblastoma. Symptoms of glioma can include headache, nausea, confusion, blurred vision and seizures. Medulloblastoma tends to affect balance and coordination.

Treatment for brain cancer is challenging. Surgery poses a high risk of brain damage, and in some cases is impossible. Radiation therapy may only temporarily delay tumour growth. Many chemotherapy drugs can’t cross the blood-brain barrier (the body’s natural defence against harmful chemicals entering the brain) and so can’t reach the cancer.

As well as experiencing side effects during treatment, children treated for brain cancer often suffer ongoing health issues, sometimes for the rest of their lives. These include hormonal and growth abnormalities, vision and hearing problems, behavioural changes, depression and anxiety, and other issues.

For more information about brain cancer, see the Cancer Australia website.

Please note that, while Children’s Cancer Institute works closely with clinicians, we do NOT treat patients and are unable to provide treatment advice. For questions about an individual child’s cancer treatment, or to find out about relevant clinical trials, please contact your treating oncologist.

I believe we can do for brain cancer what has been done for leukaemia. Once the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia was 0%; today it’s around 90%.

Associate Professor David Ziegler, Group Leader, Brain Tumours 

Research into brain cancer

At Children’s Cancer Institute, we have a laboratory team dedicated to the deadliest brain tumour − a cancer called DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma).

  • We established Australia’s first DIPG tumour bank in 2011. This means we are able to grow cancer cells taken from patients’ brain tumours, in the laboratory, to use them for DIPG research.

  • We have identified several new potential treatments for DIPG and have tested these in our laboratory models of disease. These are now progressing to clinical trials in children.

  • We launched Levi’s Project, which aims to develop Australia’s first-ever treatment program for children with DIPG.

Researchers in our Tumour Biology and Targeting team are also working on brain cancer. They are investigating whether nanotechnology can be used to develop better therapies for brain cancers such as medulloblastoma and glioblastoma. This work includes:

  • looking for new therapeutic targets in brain tumours

  • designing polymers to package and deliver therapeutic agents to brain tumour cells.

In addition, children with brain cancer in hospitals right around Australia are gaining access to personalised medicine through our Zero Childhood Cancer Program, a joint initiative of Children’s Cancer Institute and the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick.

All statistics cited are from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

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