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A drug being tested on Alzheimer’s patients could help people with aggressive brain cancer, University of Calgary scientists have discovered.
The findings, published in the scientific journal Public Library of Science Biology, could change the way cancer is treated.
Researchers at the university looked at malignant gliomas, highly invasive brain tumours that are very resistant to conventional treatments. They discovered a “switch” activated by a protein already present in the brain that enables cancer cells to spread from a primary tumour.
Oncology professor Dr. Peter Forsyth explains that the switch is turned on when it is cut by what he compares to “a pair of scissors” found in the brain. But an existing family of drugs already being tested on Alzheimer’s patients “blocks these scissors from cutting the protein,” he said.
Because skin cells and brain cells are similar in origin, the drug could eventually be used to treat skin cancer too, Forsyth said Thursday.
The drug is already undergoing clinical trails, and testing on brain cancer patients in Alberta could begin within the next couple of years, he said.
“This has … accelerated our capacity by 10 or 15 years to test this idea,” he said. “Several drug companies have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing drugs that target this process, although in Alzheimer’s, not in cancer, so it’s sort of a new way to think about it, and we have a leg up where we could make an impact.”
Could replace chemo, radiation
Stephen Robbins, a medical professor on the research team, said the discovery will hopefully eliminate the need to use chemotherapy and radiation treatments in the future.
“Our success rate in treating patients with brain tumours really hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. Average survival is just over a year, so we need to treat the disease differently,” he said.
Rob Evans, who was diagnosed with brain cancer 15 years ago, has undergone surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. He was invited to comment on the study during a press conference in Calgary Thursday.
“Going through the traditional cancer treatment is hard on your body, so anytime you can reduce that and have a higher success rate, that is just fabulous,” he said.
The four University of Calgary researchers behind the study were also working jointly for Alberta Health Services.