University of Calgary

Brain cancer switch



U of C team finds "switch" that sparks cancer cells to travel

By Karen Thomas

forsythFor the first time, a research team at the University of Calgary has identified the “switch” that enables brain cancer cells to journey outwards from the primary tumour and aggressively infiltrate the brain. The ability of cancer cells to invade the normal brain renders this type of cancer incurable by surgery. In a study published in the August edition of the scientific journal Public Library of Science Biology, the scientists predict that this switchpoint will be a significant target for developing new treatments for brain cancer.

“The key to curing brain cancer is to unlock the mysteries of the traveling cancer cells,” says Dr. Peter Forsyth, professor of oncology in the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine & the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, and director of the Southern Alberta Cancer Research Institute (SACRI). “Nobody knows why cancer cells go travelling away from the main tumour, but our findings in this study help us understand how this occurs, in order to develop better treatments.”

The research focuses on malignant gliomas—highly invasive brain tumours with tendrils that extend far beyond the primary tumour site. The most common form of brain cancer, gliomas are extremely resistant to conventional treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. The average survival rate for people with brain cancer is one year, with only two percent of people living longer than three years.

In a study that began six years ago, the team at the Clark H. Smith Integrative Brain Tumour Centre marked human tumour cells with a fluorescent dye and tracked their journey through the brains of mice. This collaboration of physicians and researchers included oncology specialists from the Alberta Cancer Board, basic scientists in biochemistry and molecular biology, and Stephen Robbins, PhD, vice-director of SACRI, and Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics of Cancer.

“These aggressive infiltrating cells capitalize on a common protein known as the p75 neurotrophin receptor,” says Donna Senger, PhD, one of the senior authors of the study, and assistant professor of oncology, Faculty of Medicine & Tom Baker Cancer Centre. “Future studies will investigate the complexities of this switchpoint, and how best to turn it off.”

Funding support for this research was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Cancer Research Society. Fellowship support was provided by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.