New technology identifies brain tumor types

Scientists at Cedars-Sinai have developed a new nanotechnology that can identify brain tumor types using MRI virtual biopsy. The new technology is a drug-delivery system that can identify different types of brain tumor cells using virtual biopsies which attack the molecular structure of the cancer. It has only been tested in animal studies so far. The researchers at Cedars-Sinai say they have been developing the technology for about ten years. Finally, they have made some headway in their findings which could potentially change the future of brain cancer treatment.


Brain tumor key statistics:

  • 2nd leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children (males and females) under age 20, after leukemia
  • 2nd leading cause of cancer-related deaths in males ages 20-39, after leukemia
  • 5th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in females ages 20-39.
  •  Nearly 70,000 new cases of primary brain tumors will be diagnosed this year.
  • More than 4,600 children between the ages of 0-19 will be diagnosed with a brain tumor this year.
  • Brain and central nervous system tumors are the most common cancers among children ages 0-19.
  • There are nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. living with a brain tumor.
  • This year, nearly 14,000 people will lose their battle with a brain tumor.

If the new technology shows further promise in mice and is eventually successful in human clinical trials, this could mean a new way to treat brain cancer. The results could eventually be used to deliver nano-scale drugs that can tell the difference between brain tumor types as well as fight those brain tumor cells. Depending on how successful this treatment is in the future, it could potentially be an alternative to having surgery to remove cancer from the brain. 

The lead author of the study, Julia Ljubimova, MD, PhD, says the nano-drug can be engineered to carry a variety of drugs, proteins and genetic materials to attack tumors on several fronts from within the brain. Dr. Ljubimova is a professor of neurosurgery and biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai.

Being that Dr. Ljubimova is the director of the Nanomedicine Research Center in the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Nanomedicine Program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, she has received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the research.

The nanodrug is composed of the drug delivery system and component parts, and collectively is called a nanobioconjugate. It is in an emerging class of molecular drugs designed to slow or stop cancers by blocking them in multiple ways within the brain. The nanodrug is about 20 to 30 nanometers in size. For reference, this is about a fraction of the width of a human hair, which is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide.

Eggehard Holler, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and director of nanodrug synthesis at Cedars-Sinai.says, ‘The nanodrug can have a variety of chemical and biological modules attached. Each component serves a specialized function, such as seeking out cancer cells and binding to them, permeating the walls of blood vessels and tumor cells, or dismantling molecular mechanisms that promote tumor growth.’

The nanodrug delivery system has two main functions: to diagnose brain tumors by identifying cells that have spread to the brain from other parts of the body and to fight the brain tumor with accurate and individualized treatment. The ability to detect and determine the type of brain tumor is done by attaching a tracer which can be seen on magnetic-resonance imaging, or MRI. If the tracer picks up the tumor, it will be visible on MRI. This process is otherwise known as a ‘virtual biopsy.’

Using the virtual biopsy to identify the cancer’s molecular makeup, researchers are able to load the nanodrug delivery system with cancer-targeting components that attack the molecular structure with specificity.

The researchers came up with what they believe is a rather unique method to show that virtual biopsies can differentiate between the different types of brain tumor cells. What they did was they gave laboratory mice different types of lung cancers and breast cancers in order to show metastatic disease, as well as one type of cancer on each side of their brains. Breast cancer and lung cancer were used because they are two types of cancers that most often spread to the brain.

The researchers then used the nanodrug delivery system to identify and attack the cancers. With each attempt, the mice that received treatment with the nanodrug delivery system lived much longer compared to the mice in control groups.

Currently, there are a few different drugs available to treat different types of breast cancers, lung cancer, lymphoma and other types of cancers which are quite effective. However, they are ineffective against cancers that spread to the brain because ‘they cannot cross the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from toxins in the blood.’ The nanodrug technology is made to cross this hurdle in such a way that the drugs that are effective outside the brain are also effective inside the brain.