Health: Best minds join Leeds tumour battle

Dr Sean Lawler.
Dr Sean Lawler.
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Brain tumours are now the most common fatal cancer among children – but research is still terribly underfunded.

Thanks to two Yorkshire charities, a dedicated research laboratory has opened in Leeds. Katie Baldwin reports on how the death of one woman led to this major milestone

BEING back in Leeds is something of a homecoming for Dr Sean Lawler.

The scientist has been enticed back to his home city after 10 years in the United States by the promise of potentially helping people like Ian Meek.

Ian has been living with a brain tumour since 1994 and in 2009 the tumour became malignant.

Despite undergoing operations and treatment, he has been a stalwart fundraiser for West Yorkshire-based charity Andrea’s Gift, collecting £52,000 through his Meek’s Three Peaks challenge last year.

That dedication, and the efforts of hundreds of others like him, has enabled the organisation to reach its main goal just eight years after being established.

It was the death of Andrea Key in 2002 that led to the creation of the charity.

The mum-of-two from Bradford was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour in 2001. She lost her fight for life the following May, aged 42.

During her illness, the formerly independent woman became dependent on others as she needed more care. But her courage and determination inspired her friends and family who wanted to ensure that in future, improvements could be made in the care and treatment of people with brain tumours.

Following Andrea’s death, a charity in her name was formed.

The aim of Andrea’s Gift is clear – to find a cure for brain tumours. To reach that aim, they decided their first major fundraising goal would be to create a dedicated brain tumour laboratory in Yorkshire.

Only a third of patients diagnosed with a primary or malignant brain tumour survive for five years, and incidences in children are increasing.

But compared to other cancers, research is seriously lacking. Less than 1 per cent of funds raised for research into cancer go towards investigating brain tumours.

This lack of investment means survival rates for those with the illness are no better than they were 40 years ago.

It was that which prompted Andrea’s Gift to pursue the dream of starting a laboratory in Leeds purely dedicated to looking into the causes and treatments of brain tumours.

In 2007 the charity teamed up with Leeds children’s cancer charity Candlelighters and together they pledged £750,000 to set up a five year brain tumour research programme with the University of Leeds.

For three years, the search was on to find the right scientist to lead the research group to be based at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine at St James’s Hospital.

It seems fortuitous that they found Dr Sean Lawler.

Born in Leeds, the former Allerton Grange High School pupil had been working in America since 2000 when her started working at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with renowned neurosurgeon Nino Chiocca.

Dr Lawler told guests at the launch of the Translational Neuro-Oncology Group that his research career had begun looking at cell communication, how the outside of the cell relays messages to the inside.

Working in Boston, he learned about the startling statistics around the lack of improvement in brain tumour treatment and when he moved to Ohio in 2004, decided to work exclusively on research into the cancer.

In Leeds, he will examine samples from patients to investigate why some patients respond to treatment and some don’t.

“What we want to do is end up with a centre of excellence for brain tumour research,” he said.

“The basic aim is to do research to help brain tumour patients.

“The lab is going to focus on increasing understanding of tumours and therapies.”

He said a tissue bank would also be established, so that how each person responds to therapy can be followed.

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Overall, the aim is to link closely with doctors and their patients to translate research discoveries into new ways of treating the illness.

“I hope that in five to 10 years we can start to see some improvements in the way brain tumour patients are treated,” he said.

“I hope we can contribute to that.”

Speaking to the YEP, Dr Lawler said getting to meet the patients through Andrea’s Gift and Candlelighters was incredibly important.

“It’s completely inspiring.

“What I wish I could tell all the patients is I have got good news, and we cannot do that just yet, but over the next five or 10 years we hope to start saying ‘this looks good’.”

With a strong backing from scientists and medics, he said the set-up was ideal for the new lab.

“All the pieces of the jigsaw are in the right place,” Dr Lawler added.

“From this start, I think you can build something really exciting.”

For Carol Robertson, a friend of Andrea Key, founder of Andrea’s Gift and now full-time fundraiser for the charity, the opening of the research facility is the culmination of eight years work, a partnership with Candlelighters, and the start of a new journey.

“It means so much to so many people to have this lab operational,” she said.

“Getting the lab to this point is monumental for all of us.”

Lady Kathy Botham, wife of cricketer Ian, is president of Andrea’s Gift and told supporters at the launch that three other brain tumour charities were working alongside them in Yorkshire.

“Now we have this wonderful lab, we have Dr Lawler who has come over from America, but we need funding to help him and people like him to reverse these dreadful statistics.”

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