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The developmental origins of diffuse midline glioma

Project details

Dr Kate Atkinson
University of Birmingham
Research area
Brain tumours
Funding type
PhD studentship
Awarded in
March 2023


Having completed her training in paediatrics, Dr Kate Atkinson did an MSc in genomic medicine in 2019. This helped her to realise that she has a passion and an aptitude for discovery science research, and she is keen to pursue this so that she can contribute towards the advancement of medical treatment.

Focused on the deadly childhood brain tumour diffuse midline glioma, Kate is working with supervisor Dr John Halsall in his lab at the University of Birmingham and has access to the cutting edge infrastructure and facilities needed for this ambitious PhD project.

About diffuse midline glioma

Diffuse midline glioma (DMG) is an incurable, aggressive childhood brain cancer.

Average survival is less than one year from diagnosis, and only one in ten children survive for two years. Radiotherapy is used to prolong life but is not curative.

Effective treatments will only come once we understand what causes this cancer and why it appears only in a particular part of the brain during childhood.

Read more: About brain tumours

Understanding the developmental origins of diffuse midline glioma

Childhood DMGs are caused by a gene mutation known as H3K27M. The mutation is very important in this tumour; if it doesn’t happen in a particular part of the brain at a particular time, DMG does not develop. Understanding how the mutation results in cancer could help us develop new targeted treatments.

Kate’s research is based on the hypothesis that the H3K27M mutation affects proteins called histones when a cell divides, and how the information they carry is passed on in dividing human brain cells. This is particularly important in the developing brain and Kate aims to model the effect of this mutation during brain development.

She will use advanced microscopy and DNA sequencing techniques to have a detailed look at what happens to histone proteins after cell division in normal brain cells and in cells with the H3K27M mutation. This will help explain how H3K27M leads to cancer and will point us towards molecules that can be targeted with drugs to treat DMG.

Kate will also look at the effects of an existing drug that has shown some promise against DMG, to determine whether it alters histone distribution.

The impact: what difference will this research make?

Children with DMG need access to trials of treatments that have a good chance of working. We can only decide which treatments those might be by better understanding how this cancer develops. Kate’s research will test new ideas about the biology of DMG and help identify which molecules would be suitable targets for treatment.

As well as advancing knowledge about DMG, through this studentship we are supporting the career development of a future academic clinician, providing greater integration between clinical practice and scientific research.

About Kate  

Kate is a clinician by background. In 2019 she did an MSc in genomic medicine and this helped her realise that she had a passion and aptitude for discovery science research. She wants to contribute to the advancement of medical science so that patients and families don't have to face the diagnosis of an incurable disease.

Since finishing her clinical training she has been working in the lab, alongside her clinical job, setting up some of the techniques she will use in her PhD project.

“I’m really interested in DMG because I find the underlying biology absolutely fascinating. Understanding this disease on a molecular level is the only way we are going to get any closer to a cure."

Related projects

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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