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New Developments in the Fight Against Childhood Brain Cancer

Originally posted March 23, 2010.

Imagine a war zone where the entire army has shown up to fight the enemy but for some reason won’t shoot. For this war to be won, whatever is keeping the soldiers from fighting needs to be found and stopped. This is the situation researchers have recently discovered in their fight against  malignant gliomas, a common type of brain tumor. Dr. Richard C. E. Anderson, from the Pediatric Neurosurgery Center, recently presented this research at the American Society of Pediatric Neurosurgeons‘ Annual Meeting.

According to Dr. Anderson, the impetus for this research is the difficulty in treating this kind of cancer. He says, “despite surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, the prognosis can still be poor.”

He and a multicenter group of researchers have found that the presence of glioma tumor cells does trigger a large immune response in the body. However, at some point in the tumor’s development, the immune cells sent in to fight become inhibited, leaving the deadly tumor to grow unrestricted. He and his colleagues are trying to find out why, and exactly how, this is happening in the hopes of somehow bolstering the patient’s own immune system to fight this deadly invader.

The troops used by the immune system to fight this cancer are specific white blood cells called Tumor Associated Microglia/Monocytes or TAMs. According to Dr. Anderson, “They are found at a much higher frequency than any other immune cell in the presence of malignant gliomas” and inherently they are, “capable of destroying these tumor cells.” But in laboratory tests, “TAMS are significantly impaired in the presence of malignant gliomas.” If fully functional, the TAMS would secrete a cancer cell destroying agent called TNF-alpha. Instead, they sit there like soldiers who have been ordered not to release any bullets.

Dr. Anderson explains further, “The TAMs do not secrete the TNF-alpha in the presence of glioma cells, not simply because the entire system is blocked, but rather there is some specific pathway to cause this, and that is what we’re trying to figure out!”

He and his colleagues have found a specific gene within the TAMs that is activated, or up-regulated, when these kinds of tumor cells are present. When a gene is up-regulated, it becomes more sensitive or develops more receptors to be effected by an agent acting on it. What that agent is, researchers are trying to find out.

As they know more, Dr. Anderson says they can, “attempt to reverse functional impairment of TAMs by using siRNA, blocking antibodies, or medications to inhibit up-regulation of these genes.”

Dr. Anderson is hopeful. He says, “these initial findings are a huge clue in the continuing fight against this deadly cancer.” He and his fellow researchers now know that the soldiers are there, it’s just a matter of freeing up the troops to do battle.

Authors from Columbia University involved in this research include, Richard Anderson, Shinji ShimatoBenjamin KennedyMike CastelliPeter Canoll, and Jeffrey Bruce.

patient journey

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