Head and neck cancer

Professor Stuart Pitson’s Holy Grail: a biobank to boost glioblastoma research

Thursday, 4 Jul 2019



One of your stated goals as NRF Chair in Brain Tumour Research is to establish a glioblastoma biobank for testing new potential therapies. Why is this important?

Our goal is to develop an extensive living biobank of glioblastoma that is derived from tumours resected from patients during therapy. We do this with the assistance of the South Australian Neurological Tumour Bank, and an array of associated neurosurgeons. These patient glioblastoma cells, grown in the laboratory or as xenografts in mice, retain most of the properties they had when growing as a tumour in the brain, including drug sensitivities. Thus, they represent a great resource for testing new potential therapies developed for glioblastoma. Because all tumours have a different genetic makeup we need a large bank of glioblastoma cells from different patients to enable the potential stratification of tumour responses to these new drugs.

Your own research has focused on the role of sphingosine kinases in glioblastoma. What have you discovered so far?

The sphingosine kinases are key enzymes in the metabolism of sphingolipids; a highly abundant class of lipids, particularly in the brain, that are involved in both membrane stability and signalling between and within cells. In work we recently published in the journal Oncogene, we found that one of the sphingosine kinases is dysregulated in glioblastoma, and that this drives enhanced tumour cell division and survival, and blood vessel infiltration into the tumour. We also identified a previously unknown tumour suppressor protein of this pathway that is lost in glioblastoma, and identified several small molecule inhibitors of sphingosine kinase 2 that are effective in pre-clinical models of the tumour.

What aspect of this research excites you the most?

The prospect of identifying new drugs that help glioblastoma patients. Through the NRF we have a lot of interaction with glioblastoma patients and their families. It’s heartbreaking to see what these people endure with the aggressiveness of these terrible tumours, with this providing considerable motivation for us to make advances in this area.

How far is this work from impacting patient care?

We still have a lot of research to do. While our inhibitors look very promising we still need to improve their potency, stability and other properties before we can begin to entertain clinical trials.

Are the sphingosine kinases also of interest in other cancers or disease – now or in the future?

Yes. We have active programs in acute myeloid leukaemia and multiple myeloma where these enzymes also appear attractive therapeutic targets, particularly in sensitising these cancers to other targeted therapies.

What’s been your biggest research hurdle?

Maintaining funding to keep momentum in our research programs. We’ve been fortunate in this area, but if feels like every year the research funding hurdles get higher!

What’s your Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve in your research career?

To develop a drug that can really help improve the outcomes for glioblastoma patients.

Who has influenced you most in work or life?

My father. Amongst the many things he taught me, high on the list are integrity and determination. He may have been a farmer, but these attributes are so critical for medical research.

Share with us your favourite brain food or a brain fitness tip.

Dark chocolate. With, depending on the time of day, coffee or a nice red!

There’s an app for that. What’s new on your phone?

SeatGuru. I haven’t fully tried it yet, but I never want to get a bad seat on a plane again!

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