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Science and Research

$11.5 Million Awarded For Brain Cancer Research

SPORE Drives Rapid Research

This article was originally published in Northwestern Medicine magazine. It has been modified for Northwestern Medicine’s content hub, HealthBeat.

Better research means better care in the fight against cancer. The Department of Neurological Surgery at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have been awarded a highly competitive $11.5 million Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant from National Cancer Institute (NCI) for brain cancer research with a special emphasis on glioblastoma (GBM). Maciej S. Lesniak, MD, professor and chair of neurological surgery, is the lead of the SPORE.

About Glioblastoma (GBM)

GBM is an aggressive, malignant brain cancer. It is in a group of tumors called astrocytoma, which begin producing cells called astrocytes in your brain. About 12 to 15 percent of people with brain tumors have this type of brain cancer.

Although they do not spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, the tumors can metastasize to other parts of the brain very quickly because they are nourished by blood supply. Much like a trellis, astrocytes can weave their way to other parts of the brain and reproduce. Because of their aggressive nature, treatment plans may offer several approaches. With standard treatment, the median survival rate of GBM is 15 months.

What the SPORE Grant Means

NCI SPORE grants are awarded to institutions that NCI believes demonstrate the talent and resources to generate scientific breakthroughs in the field. The grant awarded to the Department of Neurological Surgery at Lurie Cancer Center and Feinberg School of Medicine was the first of its kind awarded in Illinois.

The grant supports the work of physicians and scientists, creating a complementary team with a unified, shared goal. Taking a team approach, the grant helps to accelerate progress by moving discoveries from the laboratory to the clinic in the form of clinical trials.

Fighting GBM: Current Clinical Trials

The first SPORE project involves a first-of-its kind clinical trial employing neural stem cells, which work with a common cold virus to infect and kill tumor cells. The cells are injected in the void where the tumor was removed surgically. To date, nine individuals have participated in the clinical study with promising results, according to Dr. Lesniak, who developed the treatment.

The second project, co-led by Derek Wainwright, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and microbiology immunology, and Rimas Lukas, MD, associate professor of neurology, involves two immunotherapies for treating GBM. The Wainwright Laboratory has studied the influence of an enzyme (known as ID01) whose activity suppresses a patient’s immune response against their tumor. This approach involves devising strategies to block the enzyme, while treating with a second therapeutic drug to stimulate the immune response against the tumor.

The third SPORE project features the first drug to use nucleic acids to deliver and target gene suppression in tumor cells. Developed by Chad Mirkin, PhD, director of Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology, and Alexander Stegh, PhD, associate professor of neurology in the Division of Neuro-oncology, the drug has been shown to reach brain tumors in animal models.

Finally, the fourth project, led by Shi-Yuan Cheng, PhD, and Leonidas C. Platanias, MD, focuses on a novel autophagy inhibitor for brain cancer cells. Autophagy, or the consumption of your body’s tissue, may allow scientists to understand how to use the disease to target itself.

Future Opportunities

An effort of this magnitude requires both scientific and administrative help. These resources could potentially lead to additional opportunities, as well. 

The grant’s Biospecimen Core will collect up to 400 new tumors and matching blood samples per year from surgical procedures at Northwestern Medicine. The Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Core will manage data collection and storage, provide analysis, and contribute to interpretation of results from preclinical studies and clinical trials

A Career Enhancement Program will nurture early-stage investigators in neuro-oncology research, and a Developmental Research Program will provide funding for the early development of additional approaches for treating GBM that have a strong likelihood of developing into fully-fledged SPORE projects or being spun off into other research initiatives

There is a lot of opportunity for continued research in this field. According to C. David James, PhD, the Jean Malnati Miller professor of brain tumor research and co-leader of the SPORE, Northwestern University’s large brain tumor enterprise is a fertile ground for these future projects. “We have a critical mass of investigators in our brain tumor community who are uniquely focused on a specific brain cancer,” he says. “Very few institutions in the country have a comparable depth and breadth of expertise as exists here.”

Learn more about the SPORE grant as well as other available clinical trials.