Not all brain tumors are created equal—some are far more deadly than others. Among the most deadly is a type of tumor called high-grade glioma or HGG. Most distressingly, HGG’s are the leading cause of brain tumor death in both children and adults. And despite extraordinary progress in cancer research as a whole, survival rates for those diagnosed with an HGG have yet to improve.
But recent research from Stanford University scientists could one day help move the needle—and give renewed hope to the patients and their families affected by this devastating disease.
The study, published today in the journal Cell, found that one key driver for HGG’s deadly diagnosis is that the tumor can be stimulated to grow by the brain’s own neural activity—specifically the nerve activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex.
Michelle Monje, senior author of the study that was funded in part by two grants from CIRM, was initially surprised by these results, as they run counter to how most types of tumors grow. As she explained in today’s press release:
“We don’t think about bile production promoting liver cancer growth, or breathing promoting the growth of lung cancer. But we’ve shown that brain function is driving these brain cancers.”
By analyzing tumor cells extracted from HGG patients, and engrafting it onto mouse models in the lab, the researchers were able to pinpoint how the brain’s own activity was driving tumor growth.
The culprit: a protein called neuroligin-3 that appeared to be calling the shots. There are four distinct types of HGGs that affect the brain in vastly different ways—and have vastly different molecular and genetic characteristics. Interestingly, says Monje, neuroligin-3 played the same role in all of them.
What was so disturbing to the research team, says Monje, is that neuroligin-3 is an essential protein for overall brain development. Specifically, it helps maintain healthy growth and repair of brain tissue over time. In order to grow, HGG tumors hijack this critical protein.
The research team came to this conclusion after a series of experiments that delved deep into the molecular mechanisms that guide both brain activity and brain tumor development. They first employed a technique called optogenetics, whereby scientists use genetic manipulation to insert light-sensitive proteins into the brain cells, or neurons, of interest. This allowed scientists to activate these neurons—or deactivate them—at the ‘flick of a switch.’
When applying this technique to the tumor-engrafted mouse models, the team could then see that tumors grew significantly better when the neurons were switched on. The next step was to narrow it down to why. Additional biochemical analyses and testing on the mouse models confirmed that neuroligin-3 was being hijacked by the tumor to spur growth.
And when they dug deeper into the connection between neuroligin-3 and cancer, they found something even more disturbing. A detailed look at the Cancer Genome Atlas (a large public database of the genetics of human cancers), they found that HGG patients with higher levels of neuroligin-3 in their brain had shorter survival rates than those with lower levels of the same protein.
These results, while highlighting the particularly nefarious nature of this class of brain tumors, also presents enormous opportunity for researchers. Specifically, Monje hopes her team and others can find a way to block or nullify the presence of neuroligin-3 in the regions surrounding the tumor, creating a kind of barrier that can keep the size of the tumor in check.