For years doctors tried to understand why glioblastoma cancer is so hard to stop. Well, there may be an answer to that question. Three separate studies published in the journal Nature reveal that these deadly tumors draw off electrical signals from healthy cells to fuel their growth.
This particular malignant tumor fuels it’s own growth by integrating into the brain’s electrical network and then hijacking signals from healthy nerve cells.
Dr. Frank Winkler, a neurologist at Heidelberg University in Germany and an author of one of the studies, says, “They are like vampires that feed on brain activity.”
The information discovered from these new studies opens the door for new treatments. Some scientists believe these findings suggest some brain tumor growth could be slowed with drugs that interrupt connections between tumor cells and healthy cells.
Two of the studies looked at high-grade gliomas, which include glioblastoma. Dr. Michelle Monje, an associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, said, “High-grade gliomas are an intractable set of diseases, and we’ve made very little progress clinically in effectively treating these terrible brain cancers.”
Dr. Monje was part of a team that in 2015 found high-grade gliomas grew faster when the brain cells around them became more active. Monje’s team concluded that active neurons produce a substance that acts as fuel for gliomas. They placed human glioma tumors in the brains of mice. Genetically altered mice were used so they could not produce this substance.
Dr. Monje reported in the study that was published in 2017, “There wasn’t just a slowing in the tumor growth – there was a complete stagnation.” Dr. Monje further suspected that high-grade gliomas in humans weren’t just feeding on this fuel but were causing healthy brain cells actually to become more active. This would then cause the cells to produce even more fuel. She hypothesized that the cancer cells were forming connections with the healthy neurons and hijacking the electrical signals they produced.
The recent studies published this year in Nature appear to confirm this.
Monje’s team found that some cancer cells were forming synapses that were seen with an electron microscope.
Tumor cells “are integrating into neural circuits in the brain. The cancer cells themselves are promoting the neuronal activity that then feeds back to drive the growth of the cancer.” Dr. Monje said.
Dr. Douglas Hanahan, a co-author of the third study published in Nature this month and a scientist at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research, asks the question: “How might this neuronal signaling circuit in cancer cells be disrupted therapeutically while sparing the adjacent normal neurons?”
The research is likely to have a seismic impact on brain cancer research, says Andres Barria, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington who studies synapses and wrote an editorial accompanying the three studies.
“My reaction was, wow,” he says. “To show that [a tumor cell] makes real connections just like normal neurons will do is very amazing.”
Better Treatments Might Be Forthcoming!
“We hope that by decreasing the electrical signals that the tumors are receiving from the normal brain, that we might be able to complement existing therapies and extend survival and improve quality of life,” Dr. Monje says.
Let’s not give up hope!