Meet our researchers: Rhiannon Barrow, University of Leeds

Overcoming treatment resistance in glioblastoma (PhD studentship)

Rhiannon Barrow was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2018 to enable her to pursue research into the brain tumour glioblastoma.

Rhiannon undertook undergraduate studies and then a Masters in Genetics at the University of Liverpool. Throughout her course she had a strong interest in cancer and focused the majority of her research in this area. It was in her Masters year, which she spent on placement at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds, that she became particularly interested in glioblastoma and focused her Masters project on this tumour.

This experience, combined with Rhiannon’s strong academic background and huge enthusiasm for her research, stands her in great stead for her PhD studies and her ambitious research project.

About glioblastoma

Glioblastoma (GBM) is a grade 4 brain tumour, meaning that it grows and spreads quickly and is difficult to treat.

It is the most common primary brain tumour in adults, with around 2,500 cases diagnosed every year in the UK.

For those affected, the prognosis is bleak. Despite aggressive treatment – including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy - only a quarter of patients survive more than a year from diagnosis.                                                          

Read more: Brain tumours

Overcoming treatment resistance in glioblastoma

Glioblastoma is an infiltrative tumour, with finger-like tentacles that can wrap around vital brain structures.This makes it impossible to remove the entire tumour surgically.

The current treatment strategy includes surgery to remove as much tumour as possible, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy to destroy remaining tumour. Unfortunately glioblastomas are aggressive tumours and often appear resistant to treatment, or quickly recur.

Whilst a number of drugs have been designed to target the specific molecular features of GBM, all have so far failed to prolong survival. This is likely because of inherently treatment-resistant cells within primary tumours that evade therapy, continuing to proliferate to form a recurrent tumour.

Rhiannon’s main supervisor on this project, Dr Lucy Stead, has been characterising pairs of pre- and post-treatment GBM tumours to identify shared molecular features that are more prevalent in the recurrent (post-treatment) tumours. The aim is to work out which features may be responsible for conferring treatment resistance and, ultimately, to design new drugs that target these specific features.

The overarching aim of the research is to identify molecular features that define those GBM cells that do not respond to standard treatment so that drugs can be developed to target these specific features.

Rhiannon will be working in a superb research environment within the Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St James’s University Hospital. There is a thriving brain tumour research environment here, consisting of researchers interested in complementary but distinct aspects of glioma biology and experienced in areas ranging from basic science to clinical trials.

With a supervisory team experienced in neuro-oncology, neurodevelopment, computational biology, functional genomics and translational cancer research, Rhiannon has the best chance of success at every step of her research, including rapid translation through to patient benefit.

Impact

Glioblastoma is one of the most devastating forms of cancer. It is resistant to current forms of therapy and the prognosis remains dismal for those affected.

Rhiannon’s research will help to unravel the mechanisms underpinning treatment resistance so that we can find new ways to attack the tumour. We hope that the ultimate impact for patients will be more effective treatment and prolonged survival.

Equally important, through this PhD studentship, we are nurturing the development of a talented young researcher who we hope will go on to develop a long and illustrious career in this under-researched and under-resourced field.

“This project tackles glioblastoma – one of the worst human cancers. There is a desperate need for improved understanding of this disease and new ideas to help generate better clinical hypotheses that could underpin new trials. It fits well with the scope of this call and is clearly relevant, topical and important.” External reviewer

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