Stress Pushes Brain Cancer Cells to Adapt

Glioblastoma multiformes are aggressive brain tumors with evasive properties. UConn Health is collaborating with The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine to study them, and have published evidence that potentially could provide insight leading to more effective treatment.

Brain cancer concept and malignant tumor symbol as a neurology and neuroscience symbol of malignant cells spreading inside a human head as a 3D illustration render.

(Adobe Stock)

Glioblastoma multiformes is a potentially devastating brain tumor.  Now, a collaboration between UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) is discovering what makes them so adaptable and dangerous and sometimes able to evade treatments.

By understanding these evasion methods the tumor utilizes, we can more effectively neutralize them. — Dr. Ketan Bulsara

Gliomas are insidious tumors that originate from the glia, the supportive tissue in the brain. They grow through the brain and sometimes the spinal cord, intertwining with and sticking to normal brain and nerve cells in a way that makes them difficult to cut out. The name glioma means “glue tumor” in Latin. About three people of every 100,000 in the US will get it according to the National Cancer Institute, most commonly after age 60.

Dr. Bulsara portrait
Dr. Ketan Bulsara is chief of UConn Health’s Division of Neurosurgery. (Photo by Janine Gelineau)
Dr. Qian Wu portrait (white coat)
Qian Wu is chief of UConn Health’s Anatomic Pathology and Autopsy Service. (Photo by Janine Gelineau)

Glioblastoma treatment usually includes surgery, radiation and then chemotherapy.  Unfortunately, these tumors are difficult to treat with medication, inevitably adapting to evade the anti-cancer drugs that at first seemed to shrink the cancer. New evidence reported by  JAX researchers in collaboration with UConn Health Neurosurgery in the September 30 issue of Nature Genetics shows that tumor cells can change which genes they express and when in response to environmental stress—such as when they’re being attacked with chemotherapy drugs. These are called epigenetic changes because the cancer cells don’t change the genes themselves. Instead, they seem to be chemically modifying their genes on the fly, covering them or uncovering them as necessary to survive.

Dr. Kevin Becker portrait
Dr. Kevin Becker is UConn Health’s first neuro-oncologist. (Photo by Kristin Wallace)

UConn Health Chief of Neurosurgery Ketan Bulsara coordinates UConn Health’s collaboration on this project, identifying appropriate patient samples to contribute with Dr. Qian Wu from neuropathology and Dr. Kevin Becker, Director of Medical Neuro-Oncology. “This paper highlights a mechanism by which the tumor potentially adapts to our treatment methods.  By understanding these evasion methods the tumor utilizes, we can more effectively neutralize them. This transformative work has truly given us great insights into glioblastoma multiformes. The work led by Dr. Verhaak at The Jackson Laboratory, who is one of the most, if not the most,  preeminent researcher in  brain tumor research, will continue to pave new insights for us into this devastating tumor and ultimately help improve patient care,” Bulsara says.

See more information from The Jackson Laboratory.