Breakthrough in fight against brain tumor

July 14, 2009 4:12:42 PM PDT
Doctors have taken a big step in the fight against a common and deadly form of brain tumor. They've uncovered a gene involved, and that could help treatment.Glioblastoma is one of the most common and deadliest of brain tumors. Many people first heard about it when Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with it. Now, researchers say they've made a big step in understanding a possible way fight this cancer.

Some 10,000 people a year develop glioblastoma. But these tumors can show up in younger as well as older adults, in both sexes. And each can be very unique in their deadly features, rates of growth and how they response. That is why having this basic knowledge about them is so important.

In the 14 months since his diagnosis, the 79-year-old Kennedy has undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for the tumor. P.J. Lukac is only 24 and also has been diagnosed with glioblastoma.

The irony is that P.J. is in medical school. Now, he's working in the genetics lab, researching gliobalstomas. It's an experience he describes as surreal.

"They talk about uniform fatality, they talk about inevitable recurrences of the cancer, and that kind of just hits you," he said. "But I think it's really heartening to be here and to see what's going on."

And what is going on is ground-breaking research.

"Those tumors are uniformly fatal," said Dr. Markus Bredel, of the Northwestern University Feinbergh School of Medicine. "We have not made major progress in their therapy over the last several decades."

But that could now change. Dr. Bredel and his team have just published a pair of studies on the genetic makeup of these tumors.

The group cross-referenced data from more than 500 patients. They were able to identify two mutated genes within glioblastomas. The genes work together, one promoting the growth of the tumor, and the other causing it to resist treatment. It was like finding the proverbial needle.

"The needle in a haystack is a very good analogy, in that the whole haystack would represent the glioblastoma genome," Dr. Bredel said. "And we would know that there would be a couple of needles in that haystack that would be important."

It is a finding with major implications.

"Late in, this gene is not only important to the biology of the tumors, but immediately impacts the survival and the outcome of the patient," Dr. Bredel said.

P.J. is confident that the finding will lead to effective treatment.

"I think in my life time, we will see glioblastoma become a chronic and manageable disease," he said.