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Glioblastomas: What You Need to Know About Aggressive Brain Tumors

August 28, 2014
Guest blog by Amy Kimber

A diagnosis of the Glioblastoma multiforme type of brain cancer is especially devastating. It’s also the most common and aggressive brain tumor in adults that just happens to be difficult to impossible to remove. Because the tumor cells invade surrounding, healthy, tissue, surgeons are often reluctant to operate on it.

Fortunately a new treatment in the research phase may help save more lives. Combined with traditional treatments, and even some unconventional treatments, the outlook for glioblastoma victims isn’t as bleak as it was just 10 years ago. 

Treatment With Nano Particles

A radically new approach to treating glioblastoma, which is currently being researched at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, involves using nanospheres. Basically, tiny particles containing gold and cisplatin (which is a conventional chemo drug) are shot into the tumor.

Once the nanospheres are deep into the tumor, they are exposed to radiation. This causes the gold to release electrons which damage the cancer cell’s DNA and enhance the chemotherapy.

After 20 days, all evidence of cancer was gone — the cells were completely destroyed and healthy tissue was left unharmed. This is an amazing discovery when you consider that chemotherapy is inherently toxic to the body (which is why it works), and irradiating the brain can be especially harmful.

One hurdle scientists needed to overcome was the application. Putting just the gold nanoparticles into the tumor and irradiating them did not kill off cancer cells. It was the synergy between the chemo drug and the gold that worked so well.

Unfortunately, the research isn’t approved for patients just yet. Scientists need to have a consistent method of delivery, and they don’t have one for all cancer types they want to treat with this discovery.

Another obstacle is the trials. To be an effective treatment, it must be FDA approved and, for that, companies need to do trials — lots of them. Finally, further research needs to be done on optimization of size and surface chemistry of the nanomedicine so that the body will take up the drug in a way most favorable for tumor death and destruction.

CyberKnife Treatment

A CyberKnife is an FDA-approved treatment for tumors in the base of the skull and head. Unlike most treatments, the cyberknife is not an invasive procedure. Instead, it delivers high doses of radiation with sub-millimeter accuracy directly to the tumor.

This works the same way that traditional radiation therapy works, with one important difference. A CyberKnife radiation treatment only kills cancerous tumors, not healthy cells. With normal radiation therapy, there’s significant risk involved because the radiation is applied across all cell types, not just cancerous cells.

CyberKnife can also be used to kill benign tumors and other conditions like trigeminal neuralgia and arterial venous malformations. Treatments usually last between one and five sessions, and it’s an outpatient procedure.

Treatment With Coley’s Toxins

A rather old, and somewhat controversial, treatment exists that is not FDA approved but is approved in other countries like Mexico consists of injecting the patient with multiple strains of bacteria while allowing the individual’s immune system to fight off the infection, killing the cancer in the “crossfire.”

It’s called “Coley’s Toxins,” “Coley’s vaccine,” or “Coley’s fluid.” While it’s not fully understood how Coley’s toxins work, what is known is that it does work in a wide range of cancers, including glioblastomas.

The precise mixture and composition of Coley’s toxins varies according to manufacturer, but generally includes a mixture of killed Streptococcus pyogenes and Serratia marcescens.

Patients are then injected with the bacteria, a fever is induced, and the patient’s immune system goes to work.

While clinical trials are few, they do exist and show that the vaccine does in fact work. There are also numerous reports of people traveling to other countries for treatment, and many stories of people given a death sentence who used Coley’s and are now cancer-free.

If this sounds like a risky proposition, it’s because it is if you don’t go through the proper channels. There are respected medical centers in the U.S. who have successfully used this treatment option in the past, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (where Dr. William Coley worked in the 1890s). Some cancer centers persist today, even without FDA approval, including the Waisbren Clinic in Milwaukee.

Amy Kimber's passion for scientific knowledge fuels her career. As a medical researcher, she often writes about her insights and findings to help everyday people understand health issues for a better life.