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Helena Carén brings new insight to the enigma of childhood cancer

As the surgeons at Sahlgrenska University Hospital are getting ready to operate, Helena Carén receives a phone call. Soon after she takes the footbridge back to the lab carrying her cooler. Inside is a piece of insight needed to help solve the enigma of childhood brain cancer.

Keeping cancer cells alive outside the body is difficult. This also applies to cells from childhood brain tumours. Fortunately, Helena Carén does not have far to go. Glass-enclosed footbridges connect the hospital with Sahlgrenska Academy, which increases the chances of the cancer cells surviving the journey from operating table to research lab.

Live stem cells for research
But the cancer cells must not only survive. It’s also important they retain their original characteristics. In Helena Carén’s laboratory, cells are successfully cultured from the tumour samples collected by the team using specifically developed and validated protocols. “There haven’t really been any relevant cell cultures developed from childhood brain tumours up until now. This is why we are focusing on creating a test arena where we can study different sorts of tumours,” says Helena Carén.

Epigenetics in focus
One of the challenges of brain tumours is that they contain cancer stem cells that may be resistant to treatment, and which researchers believe may give rise to recurring tumours. The cancer stem cells are controlled, in part, via what is known as epigenetic regulation. Helena Carén works with the hypothesis that defective epigenetic regulation can be influenced.

“If we manage to correct the defective regulation in the cancer stem cells, we can also stop them developing tumours,” she says.

A close liaison with the treating physicians
The team also investigates how various treatments affect the cultured cancer cells. The objective is to develop more effective ways of reaching the tumour-generating cells.

“We liaise closely with the doctors at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, using the same cancer treatment as our basis. The children are often treated with a cocktail of numerous medicines. But it’s hard to know which of the substances actually have an effect. This is why we test them, individually and in different combinations. The more precise we can make future treatment protocols, the less the risk of over-treatment that can harm the child’s healthy tissue.”

Possibility of reducing severe side effects
Brain tumours are one of the most common kinds of cancer among children. The prognosis varies according to the type of tumour, but generally, seven out of ten afflicted children survive. Furthermore, side effects of the treatment can be lasting – being able to mitigate them is one of Helena Carén’s driving forces.

“A growing brain is highly affected by treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. This can lead to learning difficulties and other complications later in life. Which is why it’s particularly important to find the right treatment for every single child.”

Helena Carén is clearly on the right track. Five years after completing her PhD, at just 34, she was awarded prestigious grants from Swedish Research Council, Swedish Cancer Society, Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation and the Marie Curie Career Integration Grant.

“These awards mean that we have the opportunity to continue developing our research. Hopefully it will also lead to new advances in the treatment of childhood
brain tumours.”

Helena Carén

PhD at University of Gothenburg in 2009. Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University College London and since 2013 team leader at Sahlgrenska Cancer Center.

Selection of grants and distinctions

  • Assar Gabrielsson Award for an excellent dissertation in cancer research
  • Wenner-Gren Fellow
  • Hasselblad Foundation Grant to women researchers
  • Swedish Society for Medical Research

Contact Information

Contact details for Helena Carén

Page Manager: Pontus Sundén|Last update: 8/8/2018
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