Despite profound advances in genetic research, the type of brain cancer that killed Ted Kennedy remains virulent and almost always deadly. But now a new technique -- creating genetic "road maps" of the brain, or brain blueprinting — is giving researchers hope.
The most aggressive form of brain cancer, Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) is a swift killer; only 9 percent of patients live longer than two years after they are diagnosed, according to Rob Tufel, executive director of the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif.
Yet despite high-profile victims like Kennedy, there have been only three drug treatments approved in the past 25 years. And the information overflow brought on by profound advances in genetic research hasn't helped.
"We've been inundated with gene expression data over last five years," says Dr. Greg Foltz, who is in charge of the Ivy Glioblastoma Atlas Project. "We can survey thousands of genes in every patient. For the vast majority of genes, however, we have no idea what they do or if they are important. We need a roadmap for GBM. We need to see where in the tumor the gene is expressed."
This month, the Ivy foundation, a fund named for a victim of brain cancer — along with the Swedish Medical Center and the Allen Institute for Brain Science, both located in Seattle — will embark on a new project to create that roadmap: They're building a comprehensive gene atlas of the human brain, based on the analysis of 64 brain cancer patients.
The recently approved project, known as the Ivy Glioblastoma Atlas Project, will produce the first-ever GBM “gene expressions,” which are like blueprints of the brain that describe how abnormal genes act compared to normal genes when there is a cancerous tumor. The research will eventually lead to customized drug treatments designed specially to treat each GBM brain cancer patient.
To do that, Foltz removes a brain tumor, then sends the sample and brain scans to the Allen Institute, which creates a digital rendering that shows where the normal and abnormal expressions are located.
The researchers will target the specific pathways activated in the genes of cancer patients. GBM is highly elusive; Foltz says each case is different, so an atlas for each patient helps researchers see which genes are "turned on" and activated for that particular brain tumor.
For John Barrows, that’s good news. The 42-year-old was diagnosed with brain cancer in November of 2008. While at a business meeting, he had a seizure and went to the emergency room. Doctors found a tumor the size of a golf ball in his frontal lobe, which he had removed at the Ivy Center a week later.
"Following a long and grueling night of surgery we were told John had a grade-four Glioblastoma, and his expected prognosis was 18-24 months," Katie Barrows, John’s wife, told Foxnews.com. "We marched onward with monthly chemotherapy treatments scheduled for 12 consecutive months."
In a recent blog post, Barrows expressed hope because the new brain atlas project is intentionally focused on GBM, and the disease must be mapped specifically for each patient.
One unique aspect to the GBM atlas project is that the Ivy Center will release gene targeting research freely over the Internet for other researchers to use in the fight against brain cancer.
Images produced for previous brain atlas projects at the Allen Institute for Brain Science – named after Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder — reveal a startling clarity. In a spinal brain atlas, for example, gene expressions look like large angular spheres – darker regions reveal higher concentrations.
"The patterns can tell Dr. Foltz which genetic mutations are responsible for a specific pathways," says Aaron Blank, a spokesperson for the GBM project. "This is done at major cancer centers around the U.S. for a select group of patients but at Dr. Foltz’s center, it is done for every patient, for free, thanks to philanthropic donations. However, Foltz does not have a roadmap for GBM tumors."
Once completed, doctors will be able to see the specific pathways that cause cancer, which could lead to a drug treatment that, at long last, helps fight the worst — but most over-looked — form of cancer.