Vote of confidence
In celebration of the Freemasons’ Tercentenary year, the public was invited by the MCF to vote for their favourite charities. John McCrohan, Head of Strategic Development & Special Projects at the MCF, explains the rationale behind this initiative
Tell us about your role…
I support the CEO and Board to bring together the activities of the four legacy charities that were amalgamated into the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) to ensure they continue to meet the needs of both the masonic community and the wider community through our non-masonic grant-making. In January 2011, I started working for the Masonic Samaritan Fund, one of those four legacy charities, as Grants Director and Deputy CEO. I held the post until the consolidation of the MCF in April 2016, when I took on my current role. As well as respecting the legacy of the four charities, it’s also my job to focus on the future and think about how we can do things differently – and better.
What are the Community Awards?
The full name is the MCF Community Awards –Tercentenary Fund. These are 300 grants totalling £3 million that acknowledge the 300-year anniversary of UGLE. The Awards were created in part to raise MCF’s profile within the masonic community, but also externally. This initiative was our first large-scale, public-facing activity, and was designed to let the wider public know about the good work that happens as a result of the generosity of the Freemasons. We typically spend up to £5 million a year supporting UK charities and responding to disasters and emergencies, both here and abroad. But to celebrate the Tercentenary, we wanted to do something in addition to that, which is where the idea for the £3 million Community Awards came from. We also wanted to celebrate the formation of the MCF.
How do the grants work?
They were for either £4,000, £6,000, £15,000 or £25,000, depending on how many votes a charity got. The grants were spread across all of our Provinces, and we allocated either four, six or eight grants to each depending on size. London got 26 because of its size. It was important that the charities we supported were operating, and helping people, locally. We wanted the grants to reassure masons that the MCF is pushing money back to their communities, to see that the money they give doesn’t get swallowed up in a black hole here in London. And, of course, we wanted to show that we apply good grant-making practice and observe good due diligence.
How did you decide who would qualify for a grant?
Firstly, I went to Provinces and said, ‘We’ve got money for you, we’ll be giving grants in your region, but we’d like you to tell us which charities are close to your heart.’ We then asked each Province and Metropolitan Grand Lodge to compile a list of their chosen charities, filtered down to their allocated number. The shortlists came to us and we carried out initial due diligence to make sure charities were eligible, that they weren’t already an active recipient of a grant, and so on. We then confirmed shortlists with the Provinces and Metropolitan Grand Lodge and began contacting charities, inviting them to formally apply for a grant. They still needed to complete an application, though by this stage they were guaranteed at least £4,000 – but could potentially get as much as £25,000 if they got the most votes.
What types of charities were nominated?
We had charities in every sector – from financial hardship, social exclusion and disadvantage through to health and disability, education and employability. We had community centres, initiatives reducing isolation and loneliness for older people and complementary emergency services – things like blood bikes, for example, which take blood supplies around a county.
And how did the general public phase of the vote work?
People voted primarily online – we promoted the vote on our website, and through our social media and masonic contacts. Having spoken to some charities that had already worked with the public on that kind of scale, however, it became clear that to really make the voting work, we needed the charities themselves to lead the promotion – on their own social-media sites and during public events. To do this, we provided them with materials showing masonic iconography and branding that they could use. And, of course, the competitive element of ‘more votes equals a bigger grant’ really spurred them on.
What were the responses like?
We ended up with 177,801 votes, which really blew away our expectations. Almost 160,000 of those votes were made online, with another 18,000 cast at local events. After people voted, there was an optional short survey of just two questions. One asked if the initiative had improved the voter’s opinion of Freemasonry. Some 57% of those who completed the survey – 36,000 people – said that it had improved their perception of Freemasonry. We believe that’s pretty strong evidence that the initiative really worked.
What did you learn from the project?
We’d never done anything like this before so we were all on a massive technological learning curve. We were very exposed, so the pressure was on – we only had six months to develop the project before it went live. We were still testing the voting pages, making sure the images were right and the copy was okay the day before launch. That was a bit stressful. It was all worth it when the charities, and public, told us they didn’t realise we operated on this scale or supported so many people in this way. Given that raising this awareness was one of our key drivers, I think we’ve been really successful. Going forward, we’ll be able to do something like this much more easily because all our building blocks are now in place.
What happens next?
We are going to monitor the projects throughout the 12 months that the grants last, and do a full evaluation at the end. We want to make sure that what we have done with this grant fund has made a real impact. In a year’s time we’ll go back and see what has worked, what hasn’t worked so well and what lessons have been learned. We’ll see how we can improve, if we do something like it again in future.
Find out more - click here.
Around the world
Four charities that have benefited from the Community Awards
Social Exclusion and Disability: Veterans in Action
Veterans in Action (VIA) helps armed service veterans who have suffered the effects of war or who have found the transition back to civilian life difficult. For the past six years, VIA has been organising walking expeditions that have needed support vehicles – Land Rovers and minibuses – which are now ageing and require maintenance. The funds from the MCF grant will be used to fund a new project called the Veterans Restorations Project, which aims to restore and upgrade the existing vehicles.
Financial Hardship: Centrepoint North East
Centrepoint is the UK’s leading charity working with homeless people aged sixteen to twenty-five. It supports more than 9,000 people a year, 800 of whom are from the North East. The grant will be used for its Rent Deposit Guarantee Scheme (RDGS), which aims to increase the supply of affordable rented accommodation to disadvantaged sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds and those at risk of homelessness. As part of their acceptance on to RDGS, the person agrees to save with Centrepoint so they can afford their own cash bond as and when they move tenancy. This will enable them to have a secure base from which to build their future.
Education and Employability: Romney Resource Centre
Romney Resource Centre (RRC) was founded in 1999 and has developed a reputation as a centre of excellence, being the only provider of careers and skills advice, training, education and employment support in Romney Marsh for sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds and adults. Due to significant cutbacks in adult skills at the Skills Funding Agency, there is little further-education funding available for Romney Marsh communities – a critical situation if they are not able to upskill or attain updated qualifications. As a consequence, RRC is now seeking grant-funding support in order to continue its mission.
Health and Disability: HUTS
Now established for more than two decades, the Help Us To Survive (HUTS) Workshop supports individuals suffering with mental-health issues and learning disabilities across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. The therapeutic arts-based centre currently has more than 100 active members attending its workshop. The MCF award will go towards maintaining a full-time qualified ceramics and silkscreen-printing support worker. They provide support for members to explore creativity, gain confidence and to reduce isolation and deprivation within the rural community.
On medical grounds
Freemasonry is helping to fund pioneering work into lung cancer and leukaemia treatments. Aileen Scoular found out more at the UCL Cancer Institute Research Trust
When 18-year-old Gareth King was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in November 2013, time was of the essence. ALL’s rate of progression can be so swift that any delay could be fatal. And so Gareth found himself in the local hospital on the same evening as his diagnosis, being given an urgent blood transfusion. As soon as he was stable, Gareth was transferred to The Christie, a specialist NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, and a frightening two years for the King family began.
Like thousands of cancer patients diagnosed every year, for Gareth and his mother Sandra the biggest fear was that of the unknown. Cancer attacks with stealth and, despite some pioneering treatments, some types of cancer simply refuse to respond.
Leukaemia is one of them and ALL is the single most common form of childhood cancer. Each year in the UK, 400 adults and 300 children are diagnosed with ALL and of these, 100 adults and 30 children will have an aggressive sub-type called T-cell ALL. Its sufferers are at particular risk of chemo-resistance and relapse.
Lung cancer is another disease that continues to confound cancer experts. It is now the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK, and the most common cause of cancer death. Often diagnosed at a very late stage, more than 42,000 cases of lung cancer are confirmed every year and some 35,000 lives are claimed because of its ability to develop rapid resistance to treatment.
Research is desperately needed into treatment for both diseases, which is why two recent donations from The Freemasons’ Grand Charity and the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) have been welcomed with open arms by the UCL Cancer Institute Research Trust (CIRT).
UCL CIRT is a small charity whose role is to source seed funding for research projects that have the potential to become self-sustainable.
UCL is currently one of the UK’s leading research universities and, together with the University of Manchester, it formed Cancer Research UK’s first Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence in 2014.
The UCL Cancer Institute’s ambitious intentions are well matched by the masonic charities’ commitment to cancer-related medical research.
As a result, in November last year the Grand Charity donated £60,000 to help fund pioneering research into immunotherapy as a potential treatment for lung cancer, while a sum of £100,000 from the MSF will enable a research team to explore new treatments for ALL and, in particular, T-cell ALL.
Research into the use of immunotherapy in treating lung cancer struck a particular chord with Dr Richard Dunstan, Chairman of the Non-Masonic Grants Committee, and his committee colleague, retired surgeon Charles Akle.
‘We chose this research project for several reasons,’ explains Richard. ‘Lung cancer is still extremely common but the outlook is dreadful – it really hasn’t improved despite all the new treatments. We probably won’t see the full impact of social changes in smoking for at least another 20 years, and younger people are still not listening. Surgery isn’t always logical because the lung has a very rich blood supply, so any tumours will spread like wildfire, and radiotherapy and chemotherapy can cause many unpleasant side effects. As a GP, I witnessed those side effects in my patients.’
Richard and Charles describe immunotherapy as ‘extraordinarily exciting’ because it involves arming the body’s own defence mechanisms against the cancerous cells. This, in turn, creates the potential for personalised immunotherapy treatments.
In this project, tumour and blood samples from 10 patients with operable grade 1-3 lung cancer will be studied in micro-detail to understand how, and why, the lung cancer cells are not being detected and destroyed by each patient’s own immune system. The same patients will be enrolled in a parallel clinical trial called TRACERx, so that cell analysis can be compared with clinical outcomes.
The project will involve a team of researchers, including Professor Charles Swanton, chair in personalised medicine at the UCL Cancer Institute and co-director of the UCL/Manchester Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence, and Dr Sergio Quezada, who is the TRACERx immunological lead.
‘I visited UCL and we assessed the application carefully,’ adds Richard. ‘It’s potentially very exciting for lung cancer, and it has a huge application for other cancers, too. Immunotherapy could be the breakthrough we need in cancer treatment, and we’re proud to make such a significant contribution to its development.’
Investigating gene editing
Elsewhere in the Institute, haematologist Dr Marc Mansour is working on another research project related to targeted cancer therapies. His team’s study was nominated by Metropolitan Grand Lodge for a Silver Jubilee Research Fund grant.
‘We are always keen to support medical conditions that affect people of all ages,’ says John McCrohan, Grants Director and Deputy Chief Executive of the MSF. ‘Family lies at the heart of Freemasonry. To know that the donations the masonic community entrust us with can potentially help young people with illnesses such as leukaemia will reassure our donors that we are fulfilling their wishes.’
Mansour and his team have discovered that T-cell ALL patients who develop chemotherapy resistance are often missing a gene called EZH2 in their leukaemia cells. The loss of this gene could be the key to identifying safer, more effective treatments and, by targeting specific genes with pre-tested drugs, the leukaemia cells could be destroyed without harming the rest of the body.
Thanks to the MSF’s donation, Mansour’s team will be able to create genetically identical leukaemia cells, with and without the EZH2 gene, using pioneering genome engineering techniques. They can then test how and why some genes in T-cell ALL prevent the chemotherapy agents from working. Simultaneously, a library of up to 2,000 FDA-approved drugs will be tested to see which ones successfully destroy the EZH2-deficient precursor cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.
‘ALL is a “blameless” cancer,’ observes Mansour. ‘Most of the time, it’s a genetic abnormality. We know that a lot of children are born with abnormal cells in their blood – sometimes they develop into leukaemia, and sometimes they simply burn out.’
Mansour hopes that his findings in T-cell ALL will also be relevant to acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a condition common in the over-65s that has similarly poor survival rates. ‘It’s very satisfying to know that our findings could have wider benefits.’
Thanks to the support of the Freemasons, both projects have the potential to save lives. ‘We’re very glad to be able to support them,’ says Richard. ‘Every year, Freemasons donate money towards research into cancer but it is our great hope that the day will come when our help in this area is no longer needed.’
Find out more at www.ucl.ac.uk/cancertrust
Coping with the diagnosis
Gareth King was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in November 2013, aged 18, and received a bone marrow transplant in June 2014. His mother Sandra, whose late partner was a Freemason, recalls the experience and the support she received from the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB)
‘Gareth’s diagnosis was completely unexpected and made more challenging because he has Asperger syndrome. His treatment took place at The Christie in Manchester, a specialist NHS cancer hospital, about two hours from our home. This was difficult because I have two younger sons, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
‘Gareth’s diagnosis came after a few weeks of symptoms, including tiredness, a very sore throat and unexplained bruising, and was followed by a blood transfusion and intensive chemotherapy. It was a very frightening time. I was trying to keep my younger sons in school, but I also needed to be with Gareth in hospital. Without help, I simply couldn’t have coped.
‘The RMTGB offered support and helped fund my travel and childcare costs. They’ve been an important part of our lives, and the local almoner keeps in touch regularly.
‘Gareth’s second round of chemotherapy worked and he had a bone marrow transplant in June 2014. He’s now back at college studying for a BTEC in Sport, and although the treatment saved his life, there are permanent side effects: his spleen stopped working, he tires easily, and it has affected his IQ and ability to concentrate.’
‘It was a very frightening time. Without help I simply couldn’t have coped.’ Sandra King
From Alzheimer’s and diabetes to prosthetic limbs, local medical research projects have been chosen by Freemasons across the UK to receive grants of up to £100,000. Peter Watts finds out how the voting worked
In 2015, the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) decided to mark its 25th anniversary with an unprecedented exercise. It created the Silver Jubilee Research Fund, worth £1 million, to distribute to medical research charities and then invited masons across the UK to vote for the organisations they felt should receive a share of the funds. Charities were divided regionally so Freemasons could choose from those based locally to them.
‘It’s the first time any of the masonic charities have been proactive in this way,’ says John McCrohan, Grants Director and Deputy Chief Executive of the MSF. ‘We are conscious of the support we get from the masonic brethren and wanted to get them more actively involved in choosing who we would offer support to.’
Such was the success of the project that in September 2015 the MSF announced that following votes from more than 5,000 Freemasons in 10 regional areas, 13 charities from across the UK would receive a combined £1.13 million. With masons from all over England and Wales allowed to vote, charities receiving grants included Alzheimer’s Research UK in Oxford, Tenovus Cancer Care in Cardiff and Yorkshire Cancer Research in Sheffield. ‘It really helped people to get engaged because it was happening on their doorstep, so was something they could have a view on,’ says McCrohan of the voting process.
Causes close to home
George Royle, Provincial Grand Almoner in South Wales, where Tenovus Cancer Care has been awarded £89,000, echoes McCrohan’s sentiments. ‘We liked the fact members could vote, and were behind the process from the start. Tenovus is a household name in Wales and has been going since 1943 when 10 businessmen set it up in order to fund projects across the local area,’ he says of the charity, which will use its grant to research immunotherapy treatment.
‘It is based in Cardiff but has mobile units that save a lot of travelling for people who live in the Valleys.’
Every charity that applied for funding had to go into detail about the research it was planning, which was then analysed by the MSF board of experts.
‘We began by approaching every charity that was a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), which is around 130 charities,’ says McCrohan. ‘We wrote to each one, inviting them to apply and letting them know we were looking to support high-quality medical research. That meant they already met a very high standard in terms of peer review and evaluation.’
Just over 60 charities applied, and the MSF panel shortlisted 30 for the ballot, to be voted on by Freemasons. As well as drawing applications from a range of areas – from combating cancer and heart disease to designing prosthetic limbs – the MSF wanted to involve charities from across the country. ‘That was the unknown,’ says McCrohan. ‘We could have received all our applications from Oxford and London, two of the established centres of excellence, but we got applications from far and wide – Bristol, Southampton, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff. We had enough numbers to break it up regionally, which meant masons could vote for charities that were either based locally or had research taking place in their region.’
The power of engagement
McCrohan was pleased at the way masons responded to the initiative, particularly as the entire process took place electronically, via email, newsletters and links to websites where masons could read about how the charities intended to use the grants. ‘We wanted to challenge the perception that because Freemasons are an older generation, they might not engage with online information,’ he says.
The Jubilee fund has also raised awareness of the work that the MSF undertakes to help masons and non-masons alike. ‘Our non-masonic medical research complements the support that we give to individual masons with their health and care needs,’ says McCrohan. ‘The hope is that our support of medical research will benefit the whole of society and not just the masonic community.’
Allan Peates is Provincial Grand Almoner for Oxfordshire, where a grant of £100,000 has been awarded to Alzheimer’s Research UK. He points out how the Jubilee fund is a chance for the MSF to talk publicly about its work. ‘The MSF does a brilliant job with individual masons and their families, but a lot is unseen because people don’t always like to admit they received a grant,’ he says. ‘If you need a procedure the MSF will fund it, but the recipient won’t necessarily want people to know where the money came from.’
Allan is delighted that Alzheimer’s Research UK came top of the Jubilee poll in his region. ‘We had 62 per cent of people in our area vote for the Alzheimer’s research project,’ he says. ‘Alzheimer’s has to be at the top of our priorities, along with prostate cancer, and the charity is going to use the money to try and develop a blood test for early detection.’
As a result of the Jubilee fund, the MSF has raised its profile among the medical research community, and McCrohan hopes this will bring rewards further down the line. ‘We’ve become more aware of the research that is going on and more connected to that community. We want to be well known within the funding sector so people can come to us.’
Above all though, McCrohan hopes that masons will get involved in similar enterprises. ‘We are privileged to be entrusted with their funds and it’s only right we consult them on how they are distributed. It’s a model we’d like to repeat in the future. There are a lot of Freemasons who will never come to Great Queen Street in London, so their experience of Freemasonry is a very local one. This allows them to contribute to the way the charities based in London operate. Hopefully that’s been a positive experience.’
Jubilee research votes counted
To celebrate 25 years of generous donations from the masonic community, the MSF is awarding £1 million in medical research grants across England and Wales. Freemasons were invited by the Fund to vote for a research study shortlisted for support in their region by the doctors, consultants and care experts of the MSF’s Board of Trustees.
MSF Grants Director and Deputy Chief Executive John McCrohan said, ‘Each grant we award brings us closer to finding treatments and cures for the illnesses and disabilities that affect masonic families as well as the wider community. Thank you to all those who voted, we value your opinion and appreciate your support.’
The voting period is now closed, and results will be revealed via the MSF website and e-newsletter in September.
Fight for sight
A grant funded entirely through donations made by Freemasons and their families will aid pioneering research that could restore sight
The Masonic Samaritan Fund has provided a grant of £91,500 to eye disorder charity Fight for Sight. This will fund pioneering research that could restore vision for thousands of patients affected by degenerative eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
The grant will support research for three years at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, which is investigating ways to restore the light-sensitive photoreceptor cells at the back of the eye that are lost in conditions such as AMD and inherited retinal diseases. The research explores advances in stem-cell replacement therapy, in which photoreceptors at an early stage of development are transplanted into a degenerating retina.
Dr Dolores Conroy, director of research at Fight for Sight, thanked Freemasons for contributing such a generous amount. ‘Sight is the sense people fear losing the most. It’s an exciting time for eye research and we are delighted to be the UK charity leading the way.’
John McCrohan, MSF Grants Director, added, ‘Each year, we provide grants totalling £100,000 to people affected by eye conditions such as macular degeneration and retinal disease. This project gives us the opportunity to fund cutting-edge research with the power to develop truly effective treatments and ultimately preserve the sight of millions. It’s a valuable cause that Freemasons and their families are delighted to support.’
Twenty-five years of dedication
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Masonic Samaritan Fund. Established in 1990 with the working title of New Masonic Samaritan Fund, it continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of eligible beneficiaries.
Over the years, the Fund has benefited from careful stewardship by trustees who gave freely of their time and experience. A similarly dedicated staff team have ensured that its original ethos remains as strong as ever.
In its two and a half decades, the Fund has awarded 17,700 grants totalling more than £64 million on behalf of over 11,500 individuals. This remarkable achievement has only been possible due to the hard work and dedication of all those who have so generously supported the Fund, enabling it to help those in need. On behalf of the trustees, staff and, more importantly, beneficiaries, the MSF offers its sincere thanks.
Meeting of minds
Thanks to the research of Professor Susan Short, doctors could be using a common cold virus to shrink deadly brain tumours within five years. Sarah Holmes finds out how the Freemasons are supporting this groundbreaking work
There are six hundred and fifty kilometres of blood vessels in the human brain. If unravelled from London, they would stretch just short of Glasgow, yet coiled they fit into an organ just fifteen centimetres long.
This incredible network keeps the brain’s one hundred billion or so nerve cells supplied with oxygen and nutrients. For decades, researchers have been investigating ways of using these blood vessels to administer life-saving treatments for complex diseases, including brain tumours.
The current anti-cancer armoury relies on invasive treatments of brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which can cause debilitating side effects in patients. They range from hair loss and vomiting to the development of cancer in healthy tissues that have been exposed to radiation.
By contrast, the pervasive network of blood vessels in the brain could allow doctors to send cancer-killing agents directly to the site of the tumour. It’s a targeted approach that could cut down recovery times significantly, but the treatment possibilities have remained underdeveloped as brain cancer research struggles to attract funding.
Last year, however, new hope was instilled at the Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology. During a clinical trial of twelve NHS brain tumour patients, Professor Susan Short successfully delivered a commonly encountered, non-toxic virus capable of killing tumour cells, without harming healthy ones, directly to the brains of some patients.
‘At present, the survival rates of brain cancer are not only disappointing, but the treatments themselves can also be harmful and invasive.’
It was a major breakthrough that brought the possibility of non-toxic brain cancer treatment one step closer to reality. Shortly after the clinical trial, Professor Short and her team were awarded a five-year grant worth £3 million, half of which came from The Brain Tumour Charity. Included in this was a joint contribution of £100,000 from the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) and The Freemasons’ Grand Charity – a sum that enabled Professor Short to hire two more post-doctoral researchers.
‘The research was recommended to us by distinguished cancer surgeon Charles Akle,’ says Richard Dunstan, Chairman of the Non-Masonic Grants Committee.
‘We were fortunate enough to have him on our deciding committee and he spoke very highly of Professor Short, so that greatly boosted our confidence in her research.’
At present, the survival rates of brain cancer are not only disappointing, but the treatments themselves can also be harmful and invasive, explains Richard.
‘If successful, this project could provide non-invasive and non-toxic forms of treatment that are an all-round safer option for brain cancer sufferers. In our view, that constitutes research of the utmost importance.’
For John McCrohan, Grants Director at the MSF, the fact that the project was being carried out in Leeds, away from the usual centres for funding, gave it extra significance. ‘It proves that not all high-quality research happens in London or Cambridge,’ he says. ‘We were eager to show the masonic community that our funding could be helping research happening right on their doorsteps.’
‘In Professor Short’s research, a harmless household pathogen is used, producing mild, flu-like symptoms at worst.’
The funding gap
It’s not the first time the Grand Charity and the MSF have combined to support a medical research cause, with previous contributions benefiting work with both prostate and ovarian cancer. This latest award, however, will help to find desperately needed treatments for a cancer that has been nationally overlooked for the past decade.
Between 2002 and 2012, brain cancer research received just £35 million in National Cancer Research Institute funding compared to the £351.5 million spent researching cures for breast cancer. As a result, survival rates have not changed much in the past forty years.
In fact, recorded cases of brain cancer have increased since the 1970s, rising twenty-three per cent for men and twenty-five per cent for women. Despite accounting for just one per cent of cancer diagnoses, brain tumours are responsible for three per cent of all cancer deaths each year. Such damning odds have driven development of The Brain Tumour Charity’s latest research strategy, A Cure Can’t Wait, which aims to secure at least £20 million of investment over the next five years. The hope is to attract more people like Professor Short into the field.
‘I worked with patients suffering from brain tumours very early on in my career,’ says Professor Short. ‘I enjoyed it, but it was very obvious that more research was needed to improve the outcomes of their treatments. So when I started my PhD, I decided to apply the work to glioma.’
Glioma is a primary form of brain tumour made up of cells resembling the supportive glial cells in the brain and spine, and the focus of Professor Short’s latest research.
It is one of the most aggressive and fastest-growing tumour types, with patients usually surviving for between twelve and eighteen months after diagnosis, depending on how advanced the tumour has become.
Over the next five years, Professor Short’s work will look at how harmless viruses can be used to help attack and diminish these primary tumours, as well as secondary metastatic varieties. Called oncolytic viruses, these parasitic agents can preferentially infect and kill cancer cells.
‘The aim is to develop a non-toxic form of treatment that can be used in conjunction with the traditional methods to increase the number of tumour cells that we kill,’ says Professor Short. ‘In theory, the viruses would be injected into the patient intravenously before being carried through their bloodstream to the brain where they could act on the tumour cells.’
The success of this theory has already been proved in the earlier clinical trial, and it’s an outstanding feat given the numerous biological obstacles that have developed to protect the brain from foreign agents – even if they are cancer-killing viruses.
The most complicated is the blood brain barrier, a unique protection system that prevents harmful pathogens from infiltrating the brain’s bloodstream.
The second is the body’s own immune response against the virus while it is in circulation.
‘We believe that at least some of the virus is carried intracellularly through the bloodstream and released only at the tumour site,’ explains Professor Short. ‘The immune cells, which are derived from bone marrow, protect the virus from antibody attack so that it can’t be neutralised before it reaches the brain.’
Professor Short theorises that once in the brain, the virus invades the tumour cells, causing them to explode and die. ‘There are two ways that the virus could act on the tumour cells,’ she explains. ‘Firstly it could be a direct toxic effect of the virus, which stops the tumour cells from being able to divide and grow so they die. The second is that the virus triggers a response from the local immune cells. This would encourage the immune cells to break down the tumour cell along with the virus.’
Known as immunotherapy, this form of cancer treatment is particularly advantageous for brain cancer sufferers because it lacks the painful side effects of conventional treatment. In Professor Short’s research, a harmless household pathogen called reovirus is used, producing at worst mild, flu-like symptoms in the patients.
Ultimately, Professor Short hopes that the treatment will be available for all brain cancer patients through mainstream healthcare, although she estimates that this would be unlikely to happen for another two to three years. First, she aims to improve her understanding of how the virus attacks the tumour cells, before opening it up to more patients through clinical trials.
Alongside this main tranche of research, Professor Short’s team will also be investigating ways to stop tumour stem cells from reseeding after radiotherapy, as well as improving their understanding of the cell-based delivery system of the virus. It’s early stages yet, and although the team can’t confidently calculate the impact the research will have on patient survival rates, Professor Short remains optimistic.
‘One of the nice things about this study is that it’s a completely new treatment option,’ she says. ‘So many other approaches to treating tumours haven’t worked, but this gives patients hope. It’s another positive step towards overcoming brain cancer.’
The case for research
Tim, forty, was diagnosed with a grade IV brain tumour in February 2011. The prognosis was not good, and he was told he probably wouldn’t survive beyond eighteen months.
Even so, he went through the usual treatment process. Four years later, Tim is still here. ‘Nobody knows why I’m still around, and in a sense that makes it harder,’ he says. ‘There’s such a lack of understanding about the disease; even the treatments all seem a bit random. There’s no guarantee they will work. I have friends who were diagnosed and died within a year. Nobody can tell what’s going to happen, and that is what’s most frustrating.’
Tim hopes that with more essential research, brain cancer patients can someday be given the same odds of survival as other cancers. ‘When you don’t understand what’s happening inside your mind, it’s impossible to go forward. That’s where the research comes in.’
As a nurse, Cariss, twenty-nine, knew something wasn’t right when she kept suffering from bouts of intense déjà vu. ‘I could be driving the car, and all of a sudden my face would prickle with heat and this horrible feeling of panic would strike me,’ she recalls.
It turned out to be a grade III oligoastrocytoma growing behind her eye. Cariss was devastated. In June 2014, she had brain surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible, before undergoing intensive rounds of radiotherapy and chemotherapy over the course of the rest of the year. ‘The treatment made me feel even worse than the tumour itself,’ she says. ‘It was such a gruelling process.’
The lack of understanding about what caused this disease was equally disheartening. ‘In the news, they put it down to bad luck, but there’s got to be a reason. That’s why research is so vital, so we can find out what causes brain cancer and treat it effectively.’