A new discovery by scientists at OMRF could be key to improving brain cancer treatment.
The work could benefit patients suffering from glioma, a type of cancer that grows from glial cells in the brain and spinal cord. About 23,000 Americans are diagnosed with a malignant glioma each year and more than 13,000 will die, according to the American Cancer Society. Even with surgery and chemotherapy, patients with the most aggressive form typically have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 months after diagnosis.
Standard therapy for gliomas usually involves surgery that cuts away healthy brain tissue around a cancer, said OMRF researcher Rheal Towner, Ph.D. “Doctors use this approach to be safe and catch any diffuse cancer cells in the surrounding tissue,” he said. “But when surgeons remove more of the brain itself, the result can mean problems with speech, balance and mobility, as well as impaired senses.”
A new discovery by Towner and Jonathan Wren, Ph.D., might help surgeons minimize collateral damage in glioma surgery. The OMRF researchers identified a gene called ELTD1, which can serve as a new “biomarker”—a way to identify the cancerous cells. By using this gene as a mapping tool, surgeons could excise tumors while leaving more healthy brain tissue intact.
The gene could be useful for early diagnosis of brain cancers and might help doctors plan more effective treatments—all important factors for increasing patients’ odds of survival.
“Although they might look the same under a microscope, cancer cells have a different chemistry than healthy cells,” said Towner, director of OMRF’s Advanced Magnetic Resonance Center Imaging Facility. “Our goal was to find a way to make those cells stand out.”
Using a computer algorithm to predict the function of genes, Wren found 95 genes that could become potential targets, then homed in on ELTD1. In follow-up experiments, Towner found that the gene plays a role in the creation of blood vessels, which is vital to the growth of cancer cells.
With help from OMRF scientist Florea Lupu, Ph.D., and Huntsman Cancer Institute neurosurgeon Randy Jensen, M.D., Ph.D., the OMRF scientists were able to visualize and assess the levels of ELTD1 in both rodent and human gliomas. Their work appears in the most recent edition of the scientific journal Neurosurgery.
Towner and Wren will continue testing the other predicted glioma biomarkers. “If we can find more tools like this, it will change the face of brain tumor treatment for the better,” Towner said.
Howard Colman, M.D., Ph.D., of the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Brian Vaillant, M.D., of the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, Texas also collaborated on the research. Grants from the American Cancer Society, the J.E. and Leta Chapman Trusts, and the National Institutes of Health provided funding for the project.