Over 12,000 people are diagnosed with brain cancer each year in the UK alone, according to the Brain Tumour Charity.

new technology in cancer fight

new technology in cancer fight

Such was the case for former chief executive of Big Issue Invest, Jamie Fairweather. After a family holiday in Majorca, Fairweather came home to the devasting news that he had glioblastoma, a rare type of malignant brain cancer, and only had 6 months to a year left to live. A physically fit man, Jamie had spent his holiday actively cycling and hiking, and had shown no symptoms prior to his brain cancer diagnosis.   

In recent years, however, dramatic technological advances have expanded our understanding of the brain’s complex neurological processes. We spoke to Dr Liu Longqi of BGI-Research that has developed its own spatial multiomics technology, Stereo-seq, which will enable scientists to better understand how the brain works, its structure and why neurological diseases occur.

There is no one single cause for brain cancer, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.  A brain cancer begins as a tumour, which is a growth of cells that multiples in an abnormal and uncontrollable way. Cancerous brain tumours tend to grow and spread at a faster pace than benign tumours, with only 36% of those diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in the United States surviving at least 5 years after the initial diagnosis.   

The frightening truth is that we understand very little about the human brain, its processes or why brain cancers emerge. This is despite decades of research into brain diseases, and millions of dollars invested in conducting clinical trials and experimental drugs. Dr Liu told us, “the brain is the most complex organ in our body, comprising more than 80 billion neurons. These interconnected networks of neurons ultimately give us ‘consciousness’, which is a very miraculous phenomenon. However, we are far from clear on the mechanism behind this.

“One of the 125 unsolved mysteries selected by the journal Science is "What is the biological basis of consciousness"? It should be based on the coordinated activity of large clusters of neurons, but what are these neurons?” Dr Liu asked, “How do they work together? How do these results relate to conscious activity? In the past, limited by technology, we knew almost nothing about these issues.” 

Stereo-seq can help us comprehensively reconstruct the molecular and cellular resolution maps of the brain, allowing us to understand the composition of neurons in each brain area, the location relationship between these neurons, the regulatory mechanism of glial cells on neurons, and the occurrence of brain diseases, all of which will become the basis for our understanding of brain activity in general.

Dr Liu compares the technology to satellite navigation: “Stereo-seq is the GPS technology of life. It can help us draw a map of life, allowing us to see what type of cells constitute an organ, where each cell is, and what is the spatial relationship between different cells.”

The technology will allow medical professionals to create high-resolution maps of the human brain, building precise images at cellular and molecular level. Simply put, it is like going from 2D to 3D vision.  

As Dr Liu explains “Stereo-seq can detect over 25,000 genes at the same time, and comprehensively tell us what has changed in all genes with unprecedented precision.”

By tracking a cell’s precise location, the spatial relationships between different cells and how they interact with each other, we will be able to see the wider picture and inner workings of a disease like brain cancer. “We will be able to accurately classify cancers by gene expression, cell type and cellular microenvironment, and define each cancer subtype, enabling accurate detection,” stated Dr Liu.

In addition, Dr Liu says, Stereo-seq will play a critical role in determining the effectiveness and impact of different treatments for brain diseases, including cancer. It will also have a role in developing new treatments, ‘The technology can help us find targets for cancer treatment, such as which gene or which cell type causes cancer, so as to better help us find effective drugs. Stereo-seq can also identify immune cells that could kill tumour cells, thereby developing strategies for better immune cell therapy.’ 

This means that terminal cancer patients like Jamie would have access to holistic treatments beyond radio and chemotherapy that could increase their life expectancies. At present the survival rate for people with glioblastoma is between 6 to 22%.

Stereo-Seq technology could have significant ramifications for the understanding and treatment of brain cancers and other neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.   The technology will radically transform the field of disease diagnostics, which has been extremely limited to date.

Stereo-seq represents a major step forward towards finding a treatment for incurable brain diseases like cancer. More medical professionals will be able to monitor the effectiveness of different treatments by mapping and observing changes from cellular level. These developments will not be limited to helping scientists potentially identify  a cure for brain cancer like glioblastoma, but could pave the way into finding a cure for other neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.  


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