Despite the best efforts of countless medical professionals and years of research dedicated to the cause, the median survival time for people with malignant brain tumours is 14 to 16 months. It’s a frustrating reality that continues to challenge neurosurgeons like Dr. Adrienne Weeks at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.
“It’s disheartening to tell people I have nothing left to offer them and I think that would be echoed by all of my colleagues that treat brain tumours,” she says. In a proactive effort to address this, Dr. Weeks and a host of her peers have allied together to form ACTNOW.
“ACTNOW stands for Atlantic Canada Therapeutic Neural-Oncology Working Group,” Dr. Weeks explains. “It’s a group of clinicians and scientists interested in brain tumour research that we wanted to bring together.”
According to Dr. Weeks, the relatively poor outcome for patients with malignant brain tumours is what drives the group “to improve clinical care and the basic science research.”
“We’ve seen improvements in lung cancer, breast cancer and melanoma and we’d like to do our part to drive our field forward to improve patient quality and quantity of life,” she says.
Inspired in part by the success of a similar lung cancer research group at the QEII, Dr. Weeks has seen the potential of these partnerships first-hand. “We’ve learned that it’s harder to do research as an isolated silo and we need to form collaborations.”
Dr. Weeks is quick to point out that she’s just one of many high-profile ACTNOW members. This collective initiative within the QEII’s neuro-oncology group includes, but is not limited to, Dr. Mary MacNeil, Dr. Liam Mulroy, Dr. Nancy Best, Dr. Sidney Croul and Dr. Simon Walling. Expanding this talent pool beyond Halifax is a top priority for the team.
“We’re collaborating with a research group in Moncton, including Dr. Jeremy Roy and Dr. Dhany Charest,” Dr. Weeks notes. “Ultimately, we’re hoping to expand and include the rest of Atlantic Canada.”
Since research often takes five to 10 years to yield dividends, the group has spearheaded several projects that “focus on patient care now.”
“We’re looking at people’s understanding around medically assisted death,” Dr. Weeks explains. “But it’s also about improving our communication, ensuring that patients understand the information they’re given at different times in their care and what their access and barriers to treatment are.”
There are also several long-term research projects in the works.
“Dr. Croul, Dr. MacNeil and I have a project with Dr. Jeremy Roy in Moncton, looking for messages that brain tumours may send out in people’s blood,” she says. “A simple blood test might give us a better understanding of the disease, as opposed to looking in the brain.”
From her lab at Dalhousie University’s Sir Charles Tupper Medical Building, Dr. Weeks is looking to interpret these messages to develop innovative new treatment strategies.
“Brain tumours have this amazing way of adapting to stress,” she explains. “We’re only just beginning to understand why these tumours thrive in an environment that would destroy most cells in our body. So, one of our projects is to see if we can strip tumours of this ‘super suit’ so we might make our treatments more effective.”
As Dr. Weeks relates, one of her colleagues is also spearheading a dedicated effort to research “new and novel chemotherapeutic agents” to treat the disease.
“Dr. McNeil just started enrolling patients on a new chemotherapy,” she says. “So, it’s a clinical trial that will hopefully impact patients positively in the future.”
Another project Dr. Weeks is particularly enthused about is currently being developed by Dr. Jeremy Brown in the School of Biomedical Engineering at Dalhousie University.
“He’s developed a precision ultrasound that can image brain tumours live during surgery,” she says. “Eventually, this might be placed directly on the scalp to ablate the tumour, getting rid of the necessity to open up and split the brain.”
Although this treatment might be far from realization, Dr. Weeks notes that innovative and visionary projects like this are characteristic of the group.
“We have both short-term and long-term plans and I think you just keep trying until you find something that works.”
From her unique perspective, Dr. Weeks has seen first-hand how synergy within different departments and disciplines can yield new and exciting results.
“If we all know what each other’s projects are and we all have our individual expertise, we can bring this together and be better.”
Above all, Dr. Weeks is decidedly optimistic about the potential impact this budding regional group can make.
“Some people think that Nova Scotia is small, but I think good things come in small packages,” she says. “I think that we have the people with the knowledge, dedication and skills to make an impact on this disease.”
You can support patients living with malignant brain tumours by visiting https://qe2foundation.ca/events-lottery/community-fundraisers/brain-tumour-research-fund or call the QEII Foundation at 902 334 1546.