Researchers have determined that, during a foetus’ development, some cells become affected by Peter Pan syndrome.

The very aggressive brain tumors that claim the lives of hundreds of children every year are now believed to form as the foetus’ brain develops. This major discovery is a significant step in the fight against childhood brain cancer, where current medicine still fails. Indeed, pediatric brain cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in youth under the age of 20, and barely 10% of children and young adults with especially lethal forms of brain cancer survive past three years. 

Claudia Kleinman, researcher at the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital and professor in the Department of Human Genetics at McGill University, Nada Jabado at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and Michael Taylor at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto have determined that, during a foetus’ development, some cells become affected by Peter Pan syndrome: a genetic accident that stunts them. When the cells are unable to differentiate and age as they should, they transform into malignant tumors.

Relying on new sequencing and data analysis technologies that make it possible to read the genome of each individual cell, Claudia Kleinman and her colleagues were able to catalogue 200 cell types and their expression profiles, as well as 65 000 individual healthy cells in the two parts of the brain where most tumors occur.

Because tumors retain a number of characteristics of the healthy cells from which they arise, the researchers were able to trace their origin among the hundreds of different types of brain cells.

The team then delved into specific types of tumors and modeled them. To carry out this colossal task (each sample is equivalent to one million points!), Claudia Kleinman used cutting-edge algorithms and computational biology techniques. The researchers are now pursuing the study to find a way to prevent Peter Pan syndrome from occurring.