UBC research team Christian Naus, Wun Chey Sin and John Bechberger study glioma, the most aggressive form of adult brain cancer. Glioma has a median survival of about 15 months and a two-year survival rate of 30 per cent because it is difficult to completely remove cancer cells without compromising brain functions and chemotherapy and radiotherapy do not prevent the regrowth of remaining cancer cells.
With this new research, the team reveals an alternative route to rein in the glioma cancer cells. The cancerous cells mingle with astrocytes, a type of cell that regulates the environment in the brain to create favourable conditions for brain functions. The research team found that glioma cells can reprogram the astrocytes with little pieces of genetic code (microRNAs). Those codes act as master switches, turning specific sets of genes on and off.
“This is the first evidence that microRNA can go from glioma cells into astrocytes and reprogram them to provide an altered environment that stimulates tumor growth and invasion,” said Naus, a professor in the Department of Cellular & Physiological Sciences in the Life Sciences Institute and an investigator with the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.
“We should consider the possibility of creating a treatment that would temporarily modify the healthy astrocytes around the tumor so the cancer cells can’t hijack them,” said Sin, a research associate leading the glioma investigation in the Naus laboratory.
The research was also highlighted in a recent interdisciplinary project, “Fashioning Cancer: A Correlation Between Destruction and Beauty”, where images of brain cancer were used to highlight public awareness, as well as raise funds for cancer research.