New cancer treatment for glioblastoma — a devastating brain cancer

A new cancer treatment developed by the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute is being trialled for glioblastoma, a devastating brain cancer, which could revolutionise how the cancer is treated.

If proven effective, the cancer could be treated at home — without chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery. Patients would instead take commonly used, inexpensive medications. The treatment would cost a fraction of current treatments.

In the three-year clinical trial, the GMRI will be enrolling 25 glioblastoma patients from the lower North and upper South Island.

The research team, led by the GMRI’s Executive Director Dr Swee Tan, is working in partnership with the Neurosurgical Department of the Capital and Coast District Health Board, led by Consultant Neurosurgeon Dr Agadha Wickremesekera.

Targeting cancer stem cells — the ‘queen bees’

To describe the mechanism of the treatment, Dr Tan uses the analogy of a beehive. In a beehive, a queen bee produces worker bees, and other queen bees. A new queen bee can leave the hive and establish a new hive elsewhere.

If you imagine cancer as a beehive, the cancer cells are the ‘worker bees’ and cancer stem cells are the ‘queen bees’. Cancer stem cells, like queen bees starting new hives, can produce new cancers.

If you control the queen bee, the beehive cannot continue to grow or multiply. The GMRI hypothesis is that, by controlling the cancer stem cells, the cancer cells will stop being produced, limiting the growth and spread of cancer.

The drugs used in the clinical trial target the renin-angiotensin system, which is thought to be critical in regulating cancer stem cells.

Work on strawberry birthmarks paved the way

Dr Tan and his team’s discovery of the role of stem cells and the renin-angiotensin system underscore the new way of treating strawberry birthmarks. It uses a common blood pressure medication instead of surgery and steroids.

A revolution for quality of life and cost of treatment

If proven effective, the GMRI’s new cancer treatment could change the way cancer is treated, transform cancer patients’ quality of life, and greatly reduce the cost of treatment, Dr Tan says.

The cost of cancer treatment in New Zealand is about $1 billion a year. For the 23,000 new cancer cases each year the average annual cost is over $40,000 per patient. The treatment under trial costs about $4,000 a year.

Clinical trials on other cancers may follow if funding allows

Dr Tan and his research team chose glioblastoma because of its aggressiveness, low survival rate, and lack of effective treatment. Only 2 percent of patients survive beyond 25 months after combined treatment with surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.

The study, like all GMRI’s work, is funded by donations. The glioblastoma study will cost about $900,000 over the 3 years. If future donations allow, Dr Tan hopes to start testing on other aggressive cancers — malignant melanoma, metastatic squamous skin cancer, and mouth cancer.

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