Genetic cause behind lethal brain cancer discovered

Updated: Jul 27, 2012, 14:12 PM IST

Washington: Scientists have discovered the genetic cause behind the most common and aggressive form of primary brain cancer, they claimed.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have found that Glioblastomas, the lethal brain tumours, are caused by the fusion of two adjacent genes, and drugs that target the protein produced by this aberration can dramatically slow it`s growth.

The findings are published in the journal `Science`.

"Our findings are doubly important," said study leader Antonio Iavarone, professor of pathology and neurology at CUMC, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

"From a clinical perspective, we have identified a druggable target for a brain cancer with a particularly dismal outcome. From a basic research perspective, we have found the first example of a tumour-initiating mutation that directly affects how cells divide, causing chromosomal instability." Iavarone said.

"This is a very exciting advance in our understanding of cancer, and perhaps a first step toward a personalised, precision approach to the treatment of glioblastoma," said Stephen G Emerson, director of the HICCC.

Glioblastomas are tumours that arise from astrocytes, star-shaped cells that make up the brain`s supportive tissue.

Since astrocytes reproduce quickly and are supported by a large network of blood vessels, glioblastomas are usually highly malignant. It is estimated that these tumours affect about 10,000 people in the United States each year.

Glioblastoma is typically treated with surgery, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

However, the disease is invariably fatal, with a median survival of about 14 months after diagnosis, even with aggressive therapy.

Iavarone and his colleagues suspected that glioblastomas might be addicted to proteins produced by gene fusions. Such fusions have been implicated in other cancers, notably chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

In the current study, the CUMC researchers conducted genetic analyses of glioblastomas from nine patients, looking specifically for gene fusions.