The battle against brain cancer

Ian Elgin was just 40 years old when he died following a short battle with a form of brain tumour known as glioblastoma. Following his death, his wife, Jillian, made a donation to brain cancer research at the University of Edinburgh to aid the search for a cure. Edinburgh Friends spoke with Jillian and cancer researcher Professor Steve Pollard.

brain graphic

Ian was diagnosed in November 2015 with advanced stage cancer after experiencing excruciating headaches. During his final months, the tumour took a huge toll on his quality of life, affecting his memory and causing him to lose his sight, which forced him to give up work. He also experienced major seizures, making countless trips to hospital before finally being admitted to a local hospice.

Jillian lives in East Lothian with their children Abbie, 12, and Max, nine. She explains how shocking his death was: “Ian had such incredible resolve throughout his illness and he didn’t complain once. I always thought there would be something to help him and that he’d be able to be saved because he was so young. I didn’t appreciated that a brain tumour was actually going to kill him.”

Despite undergoing surgery, as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Ian lost his battle with glioblastoma in December 2016, with his funeral taking place just days before Christmas. High-grade glioblastoma is a fast-moving and aggressive type of brain tumour with very limited treatment options. Recovery rates are low, with only 3% of people surviving beyond three years after diagnosis. Brain tumours are now the biggest cancer killers of people under 40.

When Ian was first diagnosed, Jillian’s sister and friend set up a crowdfund to raise money for any support the family might need. After his death, Jillian began to investigate how the family could use the remaining funds to make a valuable impact for others affected by glioblastoma.

“It is very frustrating when you get a terminal diagnosis and there was just nothing else the doctors could do because they had such limited options”, remembers Jillian. It was this lack of treatment options that prompted her to contact the University of Edinburgh to find out more about the work being done in glioblastoma research.

I hope our donation will go some way to helping other families avoid the experiences we went through.

Jillian Elgin

Professor Steve Pollard is a group leader and Cancer Research UK Senior Research Fellow at the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His research concentrates on neural stem cells– specialist cells that have an ability to self-renew and that are known to drive the uncontrolled growth seen in brain tumours.

Jillian remembers an afternoon she spent in the Pollard lab at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine. “Our visit to Steve’s lab was just incredible and the work they are doing is absolutely amazing. We saw cells from a glioblastoma tumour and met one of Ian’s oncologists who was working in the research team on a secondment. I thought that it was fantastic how well integrated clinical care is with research. I was really comforted by that visit.”

By studying stem cells from tumours in a dish, the research team can test how the cells respond to drugs, speeding up the search for new therapies. The team also use cutting-edge molecular techniques, such as CRISPR, allowing scientists to genetically engineer tumour cells in the dish and monitor how different genes control disease.

Professor Pollard’s work was covered in Edinburgh Friends last year and even since then there have been strides forward in his research towards understanding, and ultimately treating, glioblastoma. Recently, the research team highlighted two key molecules involved in driving the growth of glioblastoma cells, which could help identify targets for therapies in future.

There are many ways to explore cancer, and Edinburgh Brain Cancer includes clinical research scientists working directly alongside patients as well as teams investigating molecular mechanisms in zebrafish.

Professor Steve Pollard

Professor Pollard says that collaborative spirit is key to the  success of his research efforts. Together with other research leaders, he has launched Edinburgh Brain Cancer, a consortium of early career researchers dedicated to advancing the field. The newly-formed research initiative will share knowledge and resources covering all aspects of tumour research.

He explains: “There are many ways to explore cancer, and Edinburgh Brain Cancer includes clinical research scientists working directly alongside patients as well as teams investigating molecular mechanisms in zebrafish. Bringing that wide scope together is really going to help us move forward with the research.”

Donations such as that from the Elgins provide a crucial boost to secure the future of initiatives like Edinburgh Brain Cancer. Whilst scientific research costs can run into the millions of pounds for one laboratory, Professor Pollard says that every penny donated to the centre is vital to helping ‘pump prime’ larger grants.

“Generous gifts such as Jillian’s provide early investment, or seed funding, to do preliminary proof-of-concept work that is crucial to securing grants from major funders. Donations are also incredibly important to linking groups together and generating collaborative efforts such as Edinburgh Brain Cancer”, says Professor Pollard.

He has no doubt that gifts like Jillian’s will continue to help scientists search for treatments for glioblastoma. Jillian fondly remembers her husband’s infectious positivity throughout his illness and says that it inspired her to find hope after his death. “After my visit to the research centre I had this sense of reassurance that there’s work being done behind the scenes to find a cure,” she says. “I hope that our donation will go some way to helping other families avoid the experiences we went through. It’s nice to be able to turn my situation into a little bit of hope for someone else.”