Professor Colin Watts

Significant funding of up to £2.8 million from The Brain Tumour Charity has been awarded to a Birmingham researcher for a major study named in memory of the late Baroness Jowell.

The Tessa Jowell BRAIN-MATRIX trial is being co-ordinated by Professor Colin Watts of the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, part of the University of Birmingham, which is a founding member of Birmingham Health Partners (BHP).

Baroness Jowell passed away in May 2018 after having been diagnosed with a brain tumour 12 months previously, and campaigned tirelessly for enhanced access to non-standard treatments for brain tumour patients. The trial will concentrate on diffuse gliomas – rare brain tumours which develop in the brain or spine, affecting the glial cells which support and insulate neurons. 

Professor Watts and his team aim to improve both diagnostics and clinical research opportunities for glioma patients, with the ultimate aim of improving survivorship and post-operative management of any recurrence of the cancer. It’s expected that the trial will give hundreds more patients access to experimental treatments over the next five years, through a network of 10 new neurosurgery and neuro-oncology centres. 

The study builds on the groundbreaking work of the 100,000 Genomes Project, which collects and analyses DNA and health data with the aim of treating cancers and rare diseases more effectively through targeted, precision treatments.

The BRAIN-MATRIX study will use protocols developed through this project to support glioma BioSample collection and analysis, which will inform best practice in the development of genomic medicine for brain cancer – and has the potential to benefit diagnostic pathways for other forms of the disease. 

The grant from The Brain Tumour Charity will fund the development of a sustainable clinical trial infrastructure which will recruit 1,500 patients in its first five-year cycle. 

Commenting on the multidisciplinary ecosystem which will deliver project, Professor Colin Watts explained: “This project catapults Birmingham to the forefront of neuro-oncology research and is an exemplar of what Birmingham Health Partners stands for – namely, integration for patient benefit. 

“The University of Birmingham will collaborate closely on the design of this clinical trial with the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit, which it hosts on a co-located campus with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. Our clinical colleagues will establish a new glioma clinic through which patients will be recruited and cared for, together establishing leadership in brain cancer research for the whole of the UK.” 

Professor Pam Kearns, Director of the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit (CRCTU), which is also part of BHP, said: “We are delighted to be involved with this innovative and transformational project. Our aim is to bring the CRCTU’s expertise in delivering this type of platform trial to accelerate the delivery of much-needed precision medicine to patients with glioma.” 

The Right Honourable The Baroness Jowell was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a highly malignant form of brain cancer, in May 2017. She was a strong advocate for making more cancer treatments available through the NHS, including faster diagnosis and increased access to experimental treatments. Following her death at the age of 70, the UK government pledged to double central funding for brain cancer research.

Dr David Jenkinson, Chief Scientific Officer for The Brain Tumour Charity, said: “The Tessa Jowell BRAIN-MATRIX will dramatically change the landscape for UK glioma patients of all ages. 

“As well as involving hundreds of patients in a trial that examines the effects of surgery on health and survival, it will provide the foundation for the delivery of tailored treatments based on the molecular characteristics of each patient’s tumour. 

“This offers the hope of increased survival and fewer damaging side-effects from treatments for a group of patients who have for so long been offered such limited options after diagnosis.” 

The project’s full name is a BRitish feasibility study of molecular stratification and targeted therapy to optimise the clinical mAnagement of patIeNts with glioMA by enhancing clinical ouTcomes, Reducing avoIdable toXicity, improving management of post-operative residual and recurrent disease and improving survivorship (The Tessa Jowell BRAIN-MATRIX). Preparations will begin in January 2019, with recruitment due to begin by October 2019.