Viruses that could target glioblastoma brain tumours

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According to early-stage research at Imperial College London, viruses that naturally target and kill bacteria could be re-programmed and used to destroy brain cancer cells.

These viruses, called bacteriophages, or ‘phages’ have already been successfully used in humans against bacterial infections such as meningitis, but the Imperial research team led by Dr Amin Hajitou used a genetically modified phage called M13 that could identify and latch on to targets that are found on both adult and paediatric glioblastoma brain tumour cells, leaving healthy brain cells safe. The M13 phages had been modified to then inject a gene into these cells that codes for a protein to be made inside the cell, which then causes the cells to die.

Importantly, the virus can target three different types of cells: cancer cells, cells that help new blood vessels to form in order to bring nutrients to the tumour to feed growth, and cancer stem cells that have the potential to evade initial treatment in their undifferentiated state but then become cancerous over time.

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In addition, the researchers found that by adding a dose of temozolomide, a chemotherapy drug already approved for use against glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumours, the effect on the tumours was enhanced, with many showing significant shrinkage.

Dr Amin Hajitou believes that the research has potential to improve patients’ outcomes but now needs to move into human trials to support the findings. A US based company is working to make this happen in the UK and Europe, whilst the research team continues to develop its techniques in order to make even more powerful and effective viruses in order to bring us closer to a cure.

Head of our Brain Tumour Research Imperial Centre of Excellence at Imperial College, Dr Nelofer Syed, was involved in the early stages of this research and provided a number of glioblastoma cell lines and intellectual input.

She said: “Dr Hajitou’s strategy provides a means of overcoming the blood-brain barrier to specifically target the tumour with a virus that has been manipulated to home in on the tumour cells and carry therapies that would otherwise be unable to reach their target. It will be exciting to see where this innovative research takes us in the future.”

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