Researchers at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory University and Georgia Tech have announced a groundbreaking advance in treating previously inoperable brain tumors. With this new technique, thought to be a tumor monorail of sorts, researchers can now transport cancer cells using nanotechnology to a new location on the surface of the skull. Details of the technique were reported February 16 in the journal Nature Materials.
Researchers have learned to hijack the way by which malignant cells spread throughout the brain- by following nerve fibers and blood vessels- and use it to draw cancer cells to the surface of the brain, where tumors are led to chemotherapeutic reservoirs. Instead of invading new areas of the brain, the migrating cancer cells latch onto specially-designed nanofibers and follow them to a location – potentially outside the brain – where they can be captured and killed.
“For patients with previously inoperable brain tumors, this changes everything,” said Barun Brahma, M.D., Pediatric Neurosurgeon, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “When a tumor is located in a part of the brain that we can’t safely access to surgically remove, a patient’s options and prognosis are limited. With this new technology, we can move the cancer cells to a place where we can more safely remove them or kill them using a chemotherapeutic agent. This technique will change the future of how we remove tumors and beat cancer.”
Though it won’t necessarily eliminate the cancer itself, the new technique reduced the size of brain tumors in animal models, suggesting that this form of brain cancer might one day be treated more like a chronic disease, allowing patients to live normal lives despite their disease.
“Treating brain cancer with nanofibers could be preferable to existing drug and radiation techniques,” said Ravi Bellamkonda, lead investigator and chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “One attraction about the approach is that it is purely a device. There are no drugs entering the blood stream and circulating in the brain to harm healthy cells. Treating these cancers with minimally-invasive films could be a lot less dangerous than deploying pharmaceutical chemicals.”
The research was performed using Glioblastoma multiforme cancer, also known as GBM, which is difficult because the aggressive and invasive cancer often develops in parts of the brain where surgeons are reluctant to operate. Before the technique can be used in humans, it will have to undergo extensive testing, including evaluating the technique with other forms of cancer, and be approved by the FDA.
Seed funding for early research to verify the potential for the technique was sponsored by Ian’s Friends Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization that supports research into childhood brain cancers.
Children’s, Georgia Tech and Emory University have a longstanding partnership in brain tumor research that has developed several new technologies for treating inoperable tumors. The research is supported by the Children’s Neurosciences Center, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, Ian’s Friends Foundation, and by the Georgia Research Alliance.
In addition to those already mentioned, the research team included Tobey MacDonald, Director of the Neuro-Oncology Program at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine, and Martha Betancur, Gaurangkuma Patel, Chandra Valmikinathan, Vivek Mukhatyar, Ajit Vakharia and S. Balakrishna Pai from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.