Breakthrough cancer test can spot brain tumours in children in just 10 minutes

A ‘GAMECHANGING’ cancer test could give children with brain cancer an accurate diagnosis in 10 minutes, scientists say.

There are four types of medulloblastoma – the most common brain tumour in children – but it can take weeks for current tests to pinpoint the type for treatment to begin.

GettyCombining MRI scans with AI could help diagnose medulloblastomas faster, researchers said[/caption]

bwc.nhs.ukThe test could be life-changing for children like Jack Bourne, who was diagnosed with medulloblastoma[/caption]

bwc.nhs.ukJack has just completed treatment for the cancer but faced a weeks-long wait to identify the type of medulloblastoma he was suffering from[/caption]

The tumours are fast-growing and likely to spread to other areas of the brain and spinal cord, with about 52 children diagnosed with them each year.

New researchers from the University of Birmingham and Newcastle University say they’ve found a quicker and less invasive way of diagnosing medulloblastomas.

All you want is for your child to be given the best possible treatment right from the start

Tom Bourne

The team of scientists accurately identified the chemical signature of each type of tumour using MRI scans, after testing cancer samples.

Lead author Andrew Peet, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Paediatric Oncology at the University of Birmingham, said: “Time is so important in cancer diagnosis so our findings on different types of medulloblastoma having a detectable signature metabolism could be game changing for quickly diagnosing, and then offering the best possible treatment for children.”

Medulloblastoma tumours are usually diagnosed using brain and spine MRI scans.

Medics might also collect a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid – called a lumbar puncture – or take a sample of the tumour to test it.

This process is called a biopsy and for brain cancer it’s usually done  at the same time as surgery to remove the tumour.

Taking cell samples from 86 tumours, researchers were able to identify metabolic markers for medulloblastoma, including chemicals that acted as a genetic fingerprint for each of the four different types of tumour.

These kinds of markers can give doctors information about what treatment is likely to be effective and how the tumour may develop, Macmillan Cancer Support says.

The study published in eBiomedicine found that it was possible to identify tumours using MRI scanners combined with artificial intelligence, without the need for a biopsy.

This could sharply reduce the current four-week wait for a full diagnosis, scientists said.

Professor Steve Clifford, Chair of Molecular Paediatric Oncology at the Newcastle University Centre for Cancer, who lead the study said: “Providing a rapid diagnosis using innovative scanning and AI techniques, has the potential to revolutionise patient management, allowing early non-invasive diagnosis, tailoring of treatment decisions and reducing the period of uncertainty for patients and parents while awaiting a full diagnosis.”


The new test could be life-changing for children like six-year-old Jack Bourne, from Kings Heath in Birmingham, who was diagnosed with medulloblastoma after a tumour the size of a cricket ball was found in his brain.

Jack had started experiencing sickness and headaches within weeks of starting school, but doctors put them down to possible separation anxiety or vertigo.

But the tot’s parents – Tom and Suzanna – grew worried when they noticed jack was struggling to walk.

They sought a second opinion and Jack was referred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital the same day.

But when parents Tom and Tom and Suzanna noticed that he was struggling to walk, they sought a second opinion and Jack was referred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital the same day. 

Tom said: “When they told me the results of the MRI scan, I didn’t know what to feel.

“As we were trying to digest everything, they were asking us to sign consent forms because they wanted to operate first thing the next morning.

“You’re reading these forms and all you see is – he might not make it out alive. It’s heartbreaking, it really is.”

What is medulloblastoma?

Medulloblastoma is the second most common type of brain tumour in children.

It develops at the back of the brain in the cerebellum and is fast-spreading.

Around 52 children are diagnosed with medulloblastoma every year in the UK. Adults can also get it, but this is rare.

Symptoms often develop over several months and may not be noticeable until the cancer has spread. These include:

Headaches (particularly in the morning)
Feeling or being sick
Double vision
Finding it hard to sit or stand unsupported (children might fall backwards)
Problems walking
Stumbling, falling and general clumsiness
Being irritable (kids might take longer than usual to settle)
Appetite loss
Behaviour changes (children might interact with their siblings less)
Increased head size
A swollen or soft spot on the top of the skull

On average, around 85 per cent of children diagnosed with medulloblastoma survive for at least five years.

Source: Cancer Research UK and Brain Tumour Research

Jack pulled through the 10-hour operation to remove the tumour, but it took more than four weeks for doctors to figure out what specific type of medulloblastoma he had in order to effectively treat it. 

“The research that’s going into diagnosing tumours is really important,” said Tom.

“In Jack’s case there was quite a delay while they sent his tumour to Great Ormond Street to be analysed.

“During that time Jack was given some chemo just to start things off because they just wanted to do something rather than just wait.

“But all you want is for your child to be given the best possible treatment right from the start.” 

Just has just completed 13 months of further treatment for his cancer.

Dr Laura Danielson, Children’s and Young People’s Research Lead at Cancer Research UK, said:  “Developing quicker, less invasive ways to accurately diagnose the different types of medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumour in children, is a crucial step in improving outcomes for young patients. 

“This important study has identified a new way to distinguish between the four subgroups of medulloblastoma.

“This discovery paves the way for the development of simple imaging tests that could quickly and accurately diagnose the different types of medulloblastoma. 

“This kind of discovery research is important to drive new and improved ways to better detect and treat cancers affecting children and young people.”

bwc.nhs.ukLead author Andrew Peet said the study’s finding could be game-changing for quickly diagnosing medulloblastoma[/caption]

bwc.nhs.ukJack began showing symptoms of brain cancer within weeks of starting school[/caption]

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