Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered a gel-based treatment that could be highly effective in treating glioblastoma, an often-fatal brain cancer. In a study involving mice, the gel, when combined with surgery, was able to eradicate all glioblastoma tumours. Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer and is one of the deadliest. It is difficult to treat due to its aggressive and fast-growing nature and the brain’s natural defences, including the blood-brain barrier. The gel-based treatment is still in the early stages and will require more research and safety testing before it can be used on humans.
The researchers converted the drug paclitaxel, which is FDA-approved for many cancers, into a hydrogel solution that turns into a gel once inside the brain. The team then mixed in an antibody that attacks a protein called CD47, which is used by some cancers to protect themselves from immune cells called macrophages. The gel is intended to be delivered to the brain alongside surgery, filling the crevices of the remaining tumour and eliminating it. The gel also appears to activate the immune system, reducing the likelihood of recurrence.
Study leader Professor Honggang Cui of Johns Hopkins University said, “We think this hydrogel will be the future and will supplement current treatments for brain cancer.” Professor Cui’s team found that the gel can reach areas that surgery might miss and can kill lingering cancer cells and suppress tumour growth. The gel solution is composed of nano-sized filaments made with paclitaxel, which provides a vehicle to deliver an antibody called aCD47.
One of the primary challenges with glioblastoma research is targeting macrophages, a type of cell that can protect cancer cells and promote aggressive tumour growth. The gel-based treatment targets these cells, delivering medication into the brain after surgical tumour removal. Study co-author Professor Betty Tyler said that while previous treatments have shown significant survival rates in lab experiments, the results achieved with the new gel are some of the most impressive the research team has seen.
However, the researchers emphasize that surgery is essential for the approach to work. Applying the gel directly to the brain without surgical removal of the tumour resulted in only a 50% survival rate. The team plans to continue testing the gel in animals and then move on to human clinical trials. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.