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New Research Yields Clues to Brain Cancer

Mouse study suggests promising target for treating deadly glioblastomas

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Armed with findings from experiments in mice, researchers say they've gained key insights into potential treatments for the deadliest form of brain cancer.

Italian and American scientists say they've identified a protein that may reduce tumor growth by targeting cells that help bring cancer to life.

There aren't any immediate ramifications for doctors and patients. However, "we have identified a novel strategy for the treatment of malignant, incurable human brain tumors which could potentially lead to more effective therapies," said Angelo L. Vescovi, lead author of the study and a researcher at University of Milan-Bicocca in Italy.

At issue are tumors known as glioblastomas, which are the deadliest form of primary brain cancer.

"Patients are often in their 50s and 60s, will frequently have no other medical diagnoses, and are told they have 10 to 12 months to live, on average," said Dr. Jeremy Rich, associate professor in neurology at Duke University. "It's a pretty shocking diagnosis."

About half of the 17,000 to 18,000 Americans who develop primary brain cancer each year will get this kind of malignancy, Rich said.

The tumors don't tend to spread beyond the brain. But according to Rich, that's not much of a positive since they resist surgery -- coming back even if half of the brain is removed. Glioblastomas are also resistant to other treatments such as radiation.

Some research has focused on the brain's stem cells, which can play a role in creating tumors. Stem cells, a hot topic in medicine, are precursors of other types of cells.

In the new study, published in the Dec. 7 issue of the journal Nature, the researchers found that some mice recovered from a human form of brain cancer when they were given so-called bone morphogenetic proteins. The proteins appeared to interfere with the cancer growth process in stem-like cells.

Potentially, the study authors wrote, the proteins could be used to stop cancer growth and prevent it from recurring.

"It's another piece of encouraging data that says you can take brain cancer stem cells, apply a protein that makes them turn into normal brain [cells], and get some of these stem cells to turn around and do good," said Dr. Paul Graham Fisher, associate professor of neurology and pediatrics at Stanford University.

However, he said, the research isn't "ready for prime time. It's got a long way to go."

Still, said Duke University's Rich, the findings do suggest stem cells can play a key role in tumor formation.

"The take-home message is that we need to consider a cancer not just one big lump. It's like a population of people, people with different roles," he said.

The key, Rich said, is to identify the major players and "get rid of them."

More information

Learn more about brain malignancies at the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: Jeremy Rich, M.D., associate professor in neurology, neurobiology and surgery, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; Angelo L. Vescovi, researcher, University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy; Paul Graham Fisher, M.D., associate professor of neurology and pediatrics, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.' December 2006, Nature
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