JUN 14, 2017 01:30 PM PDT

Detecting Brain Cancer Years Before Symptoms Appear?

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

A tumor growing in the brain can alter immune activities that may be detectable up to five years before symptoms manifest. Such study offers the hope of unprecedented early detection for brain cancer patients.

Image credit: Pixabay.com

"It's important to identify the early stages of tumor development if we hope to intervene more effectively," said Judith Schwartzbaum, the lead researcher in the new study, published in PLOS ONE. "If you understand those early steps, maybe you can design treatments to block further tumor growth."

Schwartzbaum and her team focused on gliomas, which make up about 27 percent of all brain cancers, and which result in 13,000 deaths every year. In particular, the glioblastoma multiforme version of glioma is particularly aggressive and notorious for the dismally grim 5-year survival rate of less than 10 percent. With such poor prognoses, early detection of gliomas could offer patients a little more precious time to manage and treat their disease.

Based on her previous work, Schwartzbaum worked off the hunch that the immune system may provide telltale clues of a glioma’s presence. Specifically, they hypothesized that the activity cytokines, proteins that are involved in cell signaling and immune responses, would be characteristically altered if a brain tumor is present.

To test their hypothesis, the team analyzed blood samples from 974 Norwegians, 50 percent of whom later went on to receive a brain cancer diagnosis after their blood test. With the blood samples, the team analyzed 277 cytokines. They found less cytokine activity in the blood of patients who eventually developed gliomas.

"There was a clear weakening of those interactions in the group who developed brain cancer and it's possible this plays a role in tumour growth and development,” said Schwartzbaum.

"Cytokine activity in cancer is especially important to understand because it can play a good-guy role in terms of fighting tumour development, but it also can play a villain and support a tumour by suppressing the immune system,” she added.

Such an immune signature could be leveraged to diagnose brain cancer years before patients develop symptoms, by which point the cancer may have become too advanced for treatment. Furthermore, because the immune changes are measured in the blood, the test need not be invasive or expensive. Still, Schwartzbaum cautions against jumping the gun with the results.

"The results of this study must be confirmed and further evaluated before it could translate to changes in the earlier diagnosis of brain cancer, but the discovery offers important insights,” she said. "While widespread blood testing of people without symptoms of this rare tumour would be impractical, this research could pave the way for techniques to identify brain cancer earlier and allow for more-effective treatment".

Additional source: MNT

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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