Cellular ‘hotspots’ in the brain may turn benign tumors into deadly cancers

LONDON — When doctors reveal that a tumor is benign, it’s naturally a huge relief for the patient. In the brain however, a new study finds these tumors may not stay harmless forever. Researchers at King’s College London have discovered a biological switch at the cell-level which can turn these growths into aggressive and deadly cancers.

A team from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, & Neuroscience say they uncovered microscopic clusters of cells which can trigger tumors to become malignant. Researchers studied living brain tissue from 20 patients undergoing brain tumor surgery in London. Their examinations revealed groups of tumor cells clustering around blood vessels in the brain.

Study authors suspect these particular sites could be the starting point for malignant progression. Once a tumor turns malignant, they can grow rapidly and uncontrollably. In the case of certain brain tumors, like glioblastomas, patients may only live for one to two years after diagnosis.

“This research is hugely significant. The ‘hotspots’ we found exhibited many of the hallmarks of cancer. The ability to pinpoint areas at high risk of malignancy gives us a much better chance of establishing why the brain tumor becomes malignant,” says lead author Dr. Gerald Finnerty, Honorary Consultant Neurologist at King’s College Hospital, in a university release.

Highlighting potential cancer hotspots

To examine each patient’s brain tissue, neurosurgeons first cooled the surface of the brain. Researchers then took a sample and placed it in a cerebrospinal fluid solution. In a lab, scientists put the sample in a miniature incubation chamber where they bathed it in a special solution to make living tumor cells glow.

Researchers say brain cancers are notoriously hard to treat because these tumors are so invasive. Even after surgery to remove a brain tumor and chemotherapy, cancer cells can still escape treatment. This increases the likelihood that the cancer will return.

“It has been a privilege to work with brain tumor patients and our neurosurgical team to deliver this highly innovative research. Live human brain tissue offers great opportunities to study how a person’s brain tumor responds to treatments. This will revolutionize therapy and bring precision medicine of brain cancer one step closer,” explains study first author Dr. Alastair Kirby.

The study appears in the journal Neuro-Oncology Advances.

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