Harsh Bhatt was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2022 to enable him to pursue research into glioblastoma, one of the deadliest human cancers.
As an academic neurosurgery trainee, Harsh has treated many patients with glioblastoma and is passionate to improve understanding of their disease and help improve treatments. This PhD studentship is enabling him to take time out from his neurosurgical training to pursue this aim.
Glioblastoma is the most common primary brain cancer in adults, with around 2,500 cases diagnosed every year in the UK.
Glioblastoma is a grade 4 tumour, meaning that it grows and spreads quickly. It infiltrates the brain, wrapping finger-like tentacles around vital brain structures, making complete surgical removal impossible.
The current treatment strategy includes surgery to remove as much tumour as possible, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy to destroy remaining tumour. This prolongs survival but is not curative. Only a quarter of patients survive more than a year from diagnosis.
The need for new treatments is urgent.
Harsh's research focuses on telomeres, sections of DNA that cap and protect the ends of our chromosomes.
The telomeres shorten each time a cell divides, including during the formation of cancer cells - a process that involves rapid cell division. This shortening can cause chromosomes to fuse together and is a key step in the formation and growth of many cancers.
Harsh is working with Professor Duncan Baird, whose lab has pioneered research into telomere dysfunction and its role in cancer development. Research from this lab has shown that telomere length and the presence of fusions can help predict survival of patients with leukaemia and breast cancer. This has also been demonstrated in a small sample of glioblastoma patients.
Harsh will build on this work, studying telomere length and fusion in a further set of glioblastoma samples to build a more complete picture of the role of telomere dysfunction in glioblastoma and how it affects length of survival. He will also test the sensitivity of tumour samples of differing telomere length to drugs called PARP-inhibitors, to see if there is a difference in response.
If this work is successful, these key characteristics could be used in the future to stratify patients with glioblastoma, to help inform prognosis and treatment choices.
Understanding telomere abnormalities in glioblastoma may provide an important new insight into this devastating disease, to help inform prognosis of patients diagnosed with glioblastoma, as well as the development of effective treatments.
Knowing which patients have shorter telomeres could help us predict who will benefit most from existing drugs that are already being trialled, and so stratify patients towards targeted treatment, reducing harm in those for whom there is no evidence of benefit.
As well as advancing knowledge about glioblastoma, through this studentship we are supporting the career development of a neuro-surgeon who is committed to pursuing an academic career focused on neuro-oncology. There are few neuro-surgeons in the UK with this kind of training.
Brain tumours are one of our current research priorities, reflecting the large unmet need in this area. Our aim is to fund research to advance understanding of the causes and underlying mechanisms of brain tumours, and help us to diagnose and treat them more effectively.
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