Common Seizure Drug Blocks Deadly Brain Cancer Growth

Summary: Researchers discovered a promising new avenue for treating glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer.

The study found that these tumors restructure connections in surrounding brain tissue, leading to cognitive decline. The team discovered that the drug gabapentin, commonly used to prevent seizures, could inhibit this activity in mice with glioblastoma.

This new study offers a new perspective on brain cancer treatment and could lead to improved patient outcomes.

Key Facts:

  1. Glioblastoma, a notoriously difficult-to-treat brain cancer, alters connections in the brain, causing cognitive decline. This newly discovered mechanism of the disease involves a feedback loop where cancer cells spur neurons to become hyperactive, promoting tumor growth.
  2. The drug gabapentin, traditionally used for seizure prevention, was found to inhibit this hyperactivity, thereby blocking tumor growth in mice with glioblastoma. This suggests a potential new direction for glioblastoma treatment.
  3. This groundbreaking research indicates that cell communication networks, such as the positive-feedback loop observed in glioblastoma, could be targeted for treatment alongside traditional genetic and immunological approaches, representing a significant paradigm shift in the understanding of cancer.

Source: UCSF

The difficult-to-treat brain cancer glioblastoma steals a person’s mental faculties as it spreads, yet the tumor’s insidious ability to infiltrate neighboring networks in the brain could also prove its undoing.

Scientists at UC San Francisco have discovered that neural activity in these deadly tumors can restructure connections in surrounding brain tissue, causing the cognitive decline associated with the disease, and that the drug gabapentin, commonly used to prevent seizures, could block this growth-causing activity in mice with glioblastoma. 

The findings, appearing in Nature, provide a hopeful new direction for research on a disease that has defied even the most modern and sophisticated types of cancer drugs.

“Glioblastoma needs a win,” said neurosurgeon Shawn Hervey-Jumper, MD, who led the study along with postdoctoral scholar Saritha Krishna, PhD.

“This study opens the door to a whole world of treatment possibilities for these patients and a new way of thinking about brain cancer.”

This shows a brain.
They found that the participants’ tumor-infiltrated brain regions used a broader neural network of brain area in the effort to identify what they were seeing. Credit: Neuroscience News

When Hervey-Jumper was beginning his study, scientists had recently discovered that brain tumors are fueled by a positive-feedback loop. It begins when cancer cells produce substances that can act as neurotransmitters. This “extra” supply of neurotransmitters spurs neurons to become hyperactive, which in turn stimulates the growth of the cancer cells. 

Building on earlier studies done on mice and brain organoids (small bundles of neurons derived from human stem cells grown in petri dishes), Hervey-Jumper focused on what the feedback loop meant for human behavior and cognition in brain cancer. 

The team recruited volunteers awaiting surgery for glioblastoma whose tumors had infiltrated the brain region controlling speech.

Just before operating on the tumor, Hervey-Jumper placed a grid of tiny electrodes on the surface of the speech region, showed the volunteers pictures and asked them to name what they saw.

The research team then compared the results with normal-appearing non-tumor regions of the brain from the same participants. They found that the participants’ tumor-infiltrated brain regions used a broader neural network of brain area in the effort to identify what they were seeing. 

Cancer as a Conversation Between Cells

Hervey-Jumper attributes this to degradation of information-processing power in that region of the brain. He likens it to an orchestra where it’s the musicians playing in synchrony that makes the music work.

“If you lose the cellos and the woodwinds, the remaining players just can’t carry the piece the way they could otherwise,” he said. The brain cells bound up in the tumor are so damaged that others must be recruited from farther out to perform the tasks that used to be controlled by a smaller area. 

The study shows that it’s this interaction between cells that causes the cognitive decline associated with brain cancer, rather than inflammation and pressure from tumor growth, as scientists had thought. 

“A brain tumor isn’t just sitting there dying,” said Hervey-Jumper. “It’s being regulated by the nervous system. It’s having conversations with the cells around it and actively integrating into brain circuits, remodeling the way they behave.”

We Haven’t Thought About Cancer in This Way

Now, the researchers knew that the tumors were taking advantage of the brain’s networks. So, they turned to gabapentin, which controls seizures by tamping down excess electrical activity in the brain, testing it in mice engrafted with human glioblastoma cells.

“Gabapentin actually kept the tumor from expanding,” said Krishna. “This makes us hopeful that combining gabapentin with other glioblastoma therapies could stave off some of the cognitive decline we see in patients and perhaps extend their lives.”  

The findings will likely translate to other neural cancers, such as those of the spine, and may help explain why the brain is the first site of metastasis in many cancers.

Hervey-Jumper said the study encourages cancer specialists to consider communication networks between cells, like the positive-feedback loop in glioblastoma, as potential targets for treatments, along with genetic and immunological approaches.  

“We haven’t thought about cancer in this way before,” he said. “The idea that there’s conversation between cancer cells and healthy brain cells is something of a paradigm shift.”

Funding: This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants K08NS110919, P50CA097257, F30CA246808, T32GM007618, K99CA25200, R01NS100440, R00DC013828, R01NS092597, DP1NS111132, and K08CA212279; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (grant 74259); and the American Brain Tumor Association (grant MSSF1900021). 

About this brain cancer research news

Author: Robin Marks
Source: UCSF
Contact: Robin Marks – UCSF
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Glioblastoma remodelling of human neural circuits decreases survival” by Shawn Hervey-Jumper et al. Nature


Glioblastoma remodelling of human neural circuits decreases survival

Gliomas synaptically integrate into neural circuits. Previous research has demonstrated bidirectional interactions between neurons and glioma cells, with neuronal activity driving glioma growth and gliomas increasing neuronal excitability.

Here we sought to determine how glioma-induced neuronal changes influence neural circuits underlying cognition and whether these interactions influence patient survival.

Using intracranial brain recordings during lexical retrieval language tasks in awake humans together with site-specific tumour tissue biopsies and cell biology experiments, we find that gliomas remodel functional neural circuitry such that task-relevant neural responses activate tumour-infiltrated cortex well beyond the cortical regions that are normally recruited in the healthy brain.

Site-directed biopsies from regions within the tumour that exhibit high functional connectivity between the tumour and the rest of the brain are enriched for a glioblastoma subpopulation that exhibits a distinct synaptogenic and neuronotrophic phenotype.

Tumour cells from functionally connected regions secrete the synaptogenic factor thrombospondin-1, which contributes to the differential neuron–glioma interactions observed in functionally connected tumour regions compared with tumour regions with less functional connectivity.

Pharmacological inhibition of thrombospondin-1 using the FDA-approved drug gabapentin decreases glioblastoma proliferation. The degree of functional connectivity between glioblastoma and the normal brain negatively affects both patient survival and performance in language tasks.

These data demonstrate that high-grade gliomas functionally remodel neural circuits in the human brain, which both promotes tumour progression and impairs cognition.

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