May 1, 2019

The unanticipated early origins of childhood brain cancer

Study identifies earliest traces of brain cancer long before the disease becomes symptomatic

Toronto (May 1, 2019) – Brain tumours are the leading cause of non-accidental death in children in Canada, but little is known about when these tumours form or how they develop. Researchers have recently identified the cells that are thought to give rise to certain brain tumours in children and discovered that these cells first appear in the embryonic stage of a mammal’s development – far earlier than they had expected.

Their findings, published today in Nature, could lead the way to the discovery of better treatments to attack these lethal tumours.

“Progress in the development of more effective brain cancer treatments has been hampered in large part by the complex heterogeneity – or the variety of cells – within each tumour,” says Dr. Michael Taylor, Paediatric Neurosurgeon and Senior Scientist in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and co-lead of the study. “We recognized that new technologies could allow us to unravel some of this complexity, so we combined our expertise with McGill and OICR to approach this problem together.”

Using mouse models, the research group investigated the different types of normal brain cells and how they developed at various timepoints in the cerebellum of the brain – the most common location for childhood brain tumours to appear. They mapped the lineages of over 30 types of cells and identified normal cells that would later transform into cancerous cells, also known as the cells of origin.

To pinpoint these specific cells, the group relied on single cell sequencing technology, which allows researchers to look at individual cells more clearly than traditional sequencing methods.

In their investigation, the cells of origin were observed much earlier in fetal development than one would expect, says Taylor, who is also a Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Toronto and Co-lead of OICR’s Brain Cancer Translational Research Initiative.

“Our data show that in some cases, these tumours arise from cell populations and events that would occur in humans at six weeks in utero,” says Dr. Lincoln Stein, Head of Adaptive Oncology at OICR and co-lead of the study. “This means that the brain tumours may be starting long before they show in clinic, even before a woman may know she is pregnant.”

“The brain is extraordinarily complex. These findings are not only important for better understanding brain tumours but they will also allow us to learn more about these cells and how they work, in order to help children with neurodevelopmental delays. What we have accomplished as a team in this study brings hope for patients,” adds Dr. Nada Jabado, Paediatric Hemato-Oncologist and Senior Scientist in the Child Health and Human Development Program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and co-lead of the study. Dr. Jabado is also a professor of Pediatrics and Human genetics at McGill University.

“If we can understand where these tumours originate, we can better understand which cells to target and when to target them to create more effective and less toxic therapies for children,” says Ibrahim El-Hamamy, PhD candidate at OICR and co-first author of the study. “We’ve found new avenues and opportunities in a very complex disease and we look forward to actualizing this potential.” 

With this knowledge, researchers can now study the differences between the development of normal, healthy cells and the cells that will eventually give rise to cancerous cells.

Continue reading – The unanticipated early origins of childhood brain cancer

July 9, 2015

World-leading Big Data researchers call for support for more accessible and more effective storage of data in the cloud to facilitate genomics research

Improved support of cloud infrastructure is essential to the delivery of the next generation of treatments for major diseases like cancer

TORONTO, ON (July 9, 2015) Today in the journal Nature prominent researchers from Canada, Europe and the U.S. have made a powerful call to major funding agencies, asking them to commit to establishing a global genomic data commons in the cloud that could be easily accessed by authorized researchers worldwide.

This would increase access to the data for researchers, reduce the time and cost associated with transferring and storing data on local servers and accelerate genomics research worldwide. Storing data in the cloud has been shown to be as secure, if not more secure, than storing it locally.

With a typical university connection it can take months to download datasets from major international projects like the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) and the hardware costs associated with storing and processing those data can also prove quite expensive.

With cloud computing a data set from a big genome project can be executed in days, at a fraction of the price.

The authors propose that funding agencies request that major data sets be uploaded into the cloud and that they pay for its long-term storage. Data would then only need to be copied once and researchers would only have to pay for temporary storage while the analysis was in progress. Access would only be provided to authorized researchers.

“Currently a great deal of valuable time and money is spent by researchers transferring data from a repository to their own preferred server, instead of easily and cheaply tapping into a global data commons whenever they need to,” said Dr. Lincoln Stein, Director of the Informatics and Bio-computing Program at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, leader of the ICGC’s Data Coordination Center in Toronto and a lead author on the paper. “We encourage a larger investment in the cloud in order to use public funds more effectively and to help accelerate the pace of genomics research.”

“Having authorized access procedures in place ensures respect for the wishes of data donors, including that their data be used safely and securely,” said Dr. Bartha Knoppers, Director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy, McGill University. “Applying the Framework for Responsible Sharing of Genomic and Health-Related Data ( is a first step in enacting the human right of citizens to benefit from scientific advances and of scientists to be recognized for their work.”

“The complexity of cancer biology means that we need huge data sets – basically, the bigger the better,” said Dr. Peter Campbell, Head of Cancer Genomics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “We have now reached a stage where these data sets are too large to move around – cloud computing offers us the flexibility to hold the data in one virtual location and unleash the world’s researchers on it all together.”

“The amount of genomic data is growing at an amazing rate. Moving data and analysis tools to the cloud will democratize access to data and to the computational resources required to analyze that data,” said Dr. Gad Getz, Director of the Cancer Genome Computational Analysis Group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “The expanded access will accelerate tool development, grow the population of researchers analyzing these rich data sets and ultimately increase the pace of scientific discovery. These cloud-based analysis platforms will also enable the testing of new distributed computing paradigms which expand both the scale of the analyses and the sophistication of the computational algorithms. We are now building a pilot of such a cloud platform.”

“The establishment of novel powerful cloud computing frameworks enabling us to store, share and analyze data across borders will open new perspectives in cancer research,” said Dr. Jan Korbel, group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). “These will take into consideration developments in science and policies for the distribution and sharing of data sets as sensitive as patient genetic data ensuring a safe environment to serve the interests of both sample donors and researchers.”

Cloud computing is most widely associated with consumer products, such as storing music, photos or editing documents in real time. But in fact a great deal of research is already conducted in the cloud, safely and securely. Cloud computing is shared resource, giving researchers access to storage and computing power as needed, instead of making a long term investment in computer infrastructure. This also maximizes the use of the infrastructure as it can be used by many researchers instead of just one.