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7th October 2014

Can doctors move brain tumours to allow for better treatment?

Why are some brain tumours more difficult to treat than others? And what if we could change that?

Like other cancers, in the best case scenario, brain tumours are either zapped with chemotherapy or surgically removed. The problem is that that tumours can pop up in various parts of the brain, some of which are easier to reach than others particularly using traditional medical devices, which are designed to deliver solutions to the site of a problem.

But what if we turned this idea on its head? Could a device be used to relocate a medical problem to a site where it could be more easily accessed?

This is the idea behind new research by Ravi Bellamkonda from the Georgia Institute of Technology who has developed implantable nanofibres that can move tumours from sites deep in the brain one cell at a time.

Dr Bellamkonda told me that: “Many cell types follow what we call ‘topographical cues,’ if there are certain concave and convex structures with alignment, cells tend to grow along them.

“It turns out that when tumours invade the brain and migrate away from the primary site, they follow similar cues, only they latch onto blood vessels or other nerves coursing through the brain,” he continued, adding that “Our insight was to figure out that there may be a structural element to their migration patterns, not just proteins that were coated on blood vessels and nerves.”

Minimally invasive

In effect the, device’s ultra-fine fibres create a scaffold – imagine a garden trellis – along which tumour cells move of their own accord. This has many potential benefits over current treatments according to Bellamkonda.

“We were able to shrink the primary tumours to about 10% of the size”

“The advantage is that our approach is ‘minimally invasive’ and does not require any suction or other forces to be applied. The nanofibre films we use are 10 microns thick and far easier to deploy in sensitive regions of the brain than a suction catheter.”

So far the nanofibre device has only been used to treat brain cancer in rats, however, the results of those experiments are encouraging.

“We were able to shrink the primary tumours to about 10% of the size of control tumours in animals that did not receive our device” Bellamkonda said, adding that the idea is not to remove the growth completely but rather “reduce tumour load, and perhaps help ‘manage’ size.”

Dr Bellamkonda is already running more laboratory experiments but is hopeful the nanofibre technology can be developed for commercial use, either through a spin-out company or by a medical device company under licence.

Cutting edge

Survival rates for brain tumours are among the lowest for any type of cancer with just 15 of every 100 people who are diagnosed surviving for five years.

One of the big problems with brain tumours is their location in the brain according to Dr Emma Smith from Cancer Research UK who said of Dr Bellamkonda’s s device that: “This fascinating, cutting edge approach could lead to new ways of stopping tumours growing without damaging healthy tissue, which is particularly important for people with brain tumours.”

However, Smith added that because the nanofibre devices have “so far has only been tested in rats, so there’s a long way to go before we know if it will be safe and effective as a cancer treatment.”

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