Dr. Meaghan O'Reilly's groundbreaking research is showing promise against leptomeningeal metastases (LM), a once rare and largely untreatable form of cancer. The Sunnybrook Research Institute scientist was the first to show that a novel method of opening the blood-spinal cord barrier can slow the growth of tumours that have spread to the spinal cord.

LM is a serious complication for about one in 20 patients when a primary tumour (most often breast cancer) spreads to the lining of the brain and spinal cord. There is no effective treatment because the protective barriers around the brain and spinal cord prevent toxins —and chemotherapy — from reaching the tumour.

The Sumar family knows exactly how aggressive LM can be, and why research to uncover new treatments is crucial. Daughter Ina-Rose Sumar died at 39 of the disease in 2012. She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34 and treated at Sunnybrook. She was also supported by hospital's PYNK program, which addresses the specific challenges facing younger women with breast cancer. After years of remission, the cancer returned as LM.

Ina-Rose Sumar

"It's a first in what will hopefully be many investigations in the spinal cord to help
patients like Ina-Rose."

Dr. Meaghan O'Reilly

Ina-Rose's family — parents Inayetali and Rozina and brother Al-Zaheed Sumar — have supported cancer care and research at Sunnybrook since 2013. That includes a donation in 2018 to support PYNK and advance Dr. O'Reilly's focused ultrasound studies with Dr. Arjun Sahgal, deputy chief of radiation oncology and director of the Cancer Ablation Therapy Program at Sunnybrook.

Now, thanks to the longstanding support of the Sumar family, Drs. O'Reilly and Sahgal have discovered that focused ultra sound can facilitate the delivery of drugs into the spinal cords of rats with LM and reduce the speed of tumour growth. Dr. O'Reilly and her team are now refining their approach to not only slow growth, but to shrink the tumours and extend survival.

The results offer a glimmer of hope to those affected by the disease and to the Sumars who hope to spare others the pain of losing a loved one to LM. "We would do anything to help combat this disease," says Al-Zaheed.

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