Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Cynthia Hawkins
THE CHADTOUGH FOUNDATION | FIGHTING DIPG AT SICKKIDS
FROM BEAKERS TO BEDSIDES
Labs at SickKids are bustling with researchers working tirelessly on new discoveries in DIPG. Dr. Cynthia Hawkins, neuropathologist and Garron Family Chair in Cancer Research at SickKids, is a shining star in the field. Dr. Hawkins has been conducting single-cell sequencing on DIPGs, learning what characteristics each tumor cell has, but also what role the normal cells around them have in the progression of DIPG. “We’re doing this because we need to build a multipronged approach. Figuring out not only how can we stop the cancer cells from dividing, but how can we keep these cells from spreading – then we can really take advantage of novel treatments like CED and move the bar on survival for these kids.” Dr. Hawkins continues to model and analyze different pathways that are responsible for DIPG, and how they respond to combinations of targeted drugs. She also works to ensure new data with the potential to help treat brain tumors is moved from the research lab into clinical testing as quickly and safely as possible. Her success has been an anchor and a jumping off point for much of the work being done in DIPG at SickKids. Your support helps make that possible.
Making Better Care More Accessible for DIPG Patients
When a child is diagnosed with brain cancer, a biopsy of the tumor tissue for DNA testing is the best way to identify life-saving personalized treatment options through clinical trials. But a biopsy requires brain surgery — invasive, fraught with postsurgical complications, and often anxiety-inducing. For DIPG patients, the tumor is in the brain stem, making it even more difficult and dangerous to perform a surgical biopsy.
Today, scientists can identify a tumor’s DNA from a simple blood test. It’s called a liquid biopsy. Despite an increasing market demand, the number of approved tests is minimal and specific for adult cancer detection. The feasibility of liquid biopsies as a clinical tool for pediatric cancers was nonexistent – until now.
Dr. Hawkins found that cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), the liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, contains bits of a brain tumor’s DNA. To gather a sample of this fluid requires a straightforward lumbar puncture. “These kids won’t need surgery for us to find genetic mutations that we can target with better drugs. We’ll remove a small amount of fluid from the spine with a needle. That’s all,” Dr. Hawkins explains.
This test’s clinical application is the first of its kind — a game-changing opportunity for kids with brain tumors like DIPG. With it, we can better diagnose patients and follow them over time, predicting responsiveness to subsequent medications. “We want to get this testing out for clinical use as fast and efficiently as possible,” Dr. Hawkins says. SickKids will be the first to develop the liquid biopsy test for children with brain tumors and continue to establish ourselves as a reference lab for pediatric diagnostics.