Brain Power (Page 3)

Brain Power (Page 3) McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2001 > Winter 2001-2002 > Brain Power > Brain Power (Page 3)


Photo Biomedical engineers Alan Evans and Bruce Pike at one of the Neuro's two MRI units.

While Milner and her colleagues focus on how the brain works, doctors and scientists at the Brain Tumour Research Centre (BTRC) train their expertise on a grimmer task. Work began in the BTRC labs in 1999, although the fully equipped centre will not officially open until next year. It is the first facility of its kind in Canada, and there is no doubt of the need for such a research and treatment centre. Every year in this country, 20,000 primary brain tumours are diagnosed. An additional 60,000 secondary tumours (which originate elsewhere in the body and send metastases to the brain) are found. About 15,000 of those patients die, and more Canadian infants and children die from brain tumours than from any other kind.

In their work to defy those numbers, BTRC researchers focus on biotechnology to determine the make-up of brain tumours. "Biotechnology will allow us to identify the proteins in brain tumour cells that are responsible for their survival and migration," says Research Director Dr. David Kaplan.

"The work of the centre concentrates on finding new methods to kill brain tumour cells, while keeping normal cells in the brain alive, and on preventing tumour cells from migrating throughout the brain. We use biotechnology to find new drugs that only affect brain tumour cells. It's important that any new treatment not be worse than the disease."

Kaplan, who trained in Nobel-prize winner Harold Varmus's Harvard lab, heads a team of 60 scientists, with more to come. All of them work closely with physicians in the 135-bed Montreal Neurological Hospital.

"We do most of our studies on brain tumour cells cultured from the patients at the hospital," says Kaplan. "If we find agents that specifically kill tumour cells from a given patient, it might be possible to tailor a specific therapy for that patient. This is our dream."

Upon completion, the BTRC will boast several state-of-the-art features, such as a $1-million communications centre, funded by the de Grandpré family as a memorial to their son-in-law, who died of a brain tumour. This special facility will enable two-way communication between MNI neurosurgeons and those in remote outposts, where necessary equipment and assistance may be lacking.

"It will allow us to exchange results and have conferences in real time with other researchers working on brain tumours throughout the world," says Kaplan. "For example, groups of clinicians and scientists at McGill will be able to see new ways of operating on brain tumours in other centres in other countries, using cameras in operating rooms broadcast to the Communications Centre."


Photo Dr. David Kaplan of the Brain Tumour Research Centre

Crucial to the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumours is determining the dimensions and nature of growths in the most important organ of the body, which nature has seen fit to encase in bone. For this reason, non-invasive techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or spectroscopy (MRS), are a tremendous boon to the neurologist.

The Neuro's McConnell Brain Imaging Centre (BIC) is one of the three largest centres of its kind in the world, equipped with multi-million-dollar imaging machines that have research and clinical applications ranging from tumours to trauma. The images generated here can literally make your head spin: 3D representations of the brain flip and twirl on computer screens, the output of imaging tools used by researchers as well as by doctors preparing for surgery. Indeed, the MNI has always been a leader in this technology, having brought, for example, the first CAT scanner, the first MRI and the first PET scanner to Canada.

In September 2000, the BIC was awarded a $35-million grant for expansion of their present research facilities and imaging capacity. Biomedical engineers Alan Evans and Bruce Pike, MEng'86, PhD'90, coordinator of the BIC, drafted the successful grant application, which requested funds to update aging equipment, purchase new machines, and open the centre to other Montreal and Quebec researchers.

Of the funds awarded, $8 million goes to construction of five new floors. The rest will pay for new imaging technology, as well as a supercomputer to process the huge volume of data generated in studies and research, the kind of machine one would find at the top special effects labs of Hollywood studios, like Star Wars producers Lucasfilm, says Pike.

"With the work we are doing," he notes, "just one short imaging session can generate half a gigabyte of data."

As Pike explains, the BIC is used by everyone at the Neuro: the neurosurgeons, the researchers working on epilepsy or multiple sclerosis, the clinicians working on brain tumour cases.

"The Brain Imaging Centre represents a core resource for imaging brain anatomy and function," he says. "The new grant will bring us to the forefront of imaging technologies and broaden our collaboration with the Quebec and Montreal regions. New machines will allow us to image brain chemistry, physiology and electrical activity."


Brain Tumour Research Centre

Cell Biology of Excitable Tissue

Centre for Neuronal Survival

Clinical Research Unit

Cognitive Neuroscience

Complex Neural Systems


McConnell Brain Imaging Centre


Neuromuscular Research


Neurosurgical Research


More developments are in store for Wilder Penfield's brainchild. The McGill University Health Centre's new superhospital is tentatively scheduled to open in 2007. The Neuro's hospital will be part of the integrated MUHC site, and because of the unique, traditionally "twinned" relationship between clinical and research facilities, the MNI faces a real challenge. But no matter what happens with the new hospital complex, the BIC -- like the rest of the MNI -- will keep up to date and competitive. As Dr. Pike points out, they can't wait, "given the time scale." So rapid is the pace of scientific and technological innovation that to stand still is to lag behind.

An international search is on for a new director for the MNI, faculty continue to be recruited from around the world, and students and trainees arrive each week. Meanwhile, MNI scientists like Tomás Paus, Pike, and hundreds of others continue research that could literally revolutionize medicine one day soon. Their work takes up Penfield's legacy and carries it into new realms of medical science, offering hope to patients everywhere for a better, healthier life.

Louise Fabiani is a Montreal writer.

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