Killing what kills cancer: Stopping glioblastomas from coming back

Reporter: Amy Oshier
Published: Updated:
MedPix images of similar glioblastomas from two different patients show the tumors (outlined in red) pushing on the surrounding tissue and compressing the cerebral ventricles (highlighted in blue). (Credit: National Institute of Health)

Glioblastoma is one of the most complex, deadly, and treatment-resistant cancers: a tumor with tentacles that spread throughout the brain. Most treatments for these invasive brain tumors include surgery, chemo, and radiation. But now, doctors are learning what’s being used to kill the cancer, may actually be causing it to grow back.

Fran Noonan knew right away she was in for the fight of her life.

“I wouldn’t accept it,” she says.

Immediately, she was taken into surgery and followed it with chemo and radiation. Five months later, the tumor came back.

“These are essentially lethal brain tumors,” explains radiation biologist and professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, Sandeep Burma, Ph.D.

Ninety percent of glioblastomas come back within just a few months. Now, researchers believe that even though radiation is the most effective treatment used to kill it, it may actually cause glioblastomas to come back.

Professor Burma emphasizes, “You cannot really avoid injury to the normal tissue surrounding the brain, especially because the normal tissue surrounding the brain also has to be irradiated in order to get rid of the infiltrating tumor cells.”

Professor Burma found that when radiation hits the brain tissue surrounding the tumor, normal brain cells age prematurely, causing the cancer to grow more quickly and more aggressively. It’s called senescence.

“The recurrent tumor could be, perhaps, even more resistant to the second line of therapy,” Professor Burma further explains.

Professor Burma’s team is now trying to stop that from happening by using a type of drug called Senolytics to clear the aging cells after radiation. In preliminary studies, it shows it could give patients a second chance at beating this deadly disease.

So far, Professor Burma’s studies have only been done in mice. But he believes that not only will the research have an impact on how we treat glioblastomas in the future, but many other cancers as well.

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