About 23,000 new cases of brain and central nervous system tumors are diagnosed annually, and more than 15,000 patients are expected to die of brain cancer this year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Glioblastoma multiforme is the most common brain malignancy, but it remains incurable with only 5 percent of patients surviving at least 5 years after diagnosis. This bleak scenario has motivated the search for a better molecular target for glioblastoma multiforme diagnosis and therapy.
Weibo Cai, PhD, an associate professor of radiology and medical physics, and his research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison searched the Cancer Genome Atlas database and identified an effective biomarker for the deadly glioblastoma multiforme: the CD146 gene, which is highly active in glioblastoma.
CD146 genes place unique CD146 proteins on the surface of cells. Cai's team developed an antibody that selectively latches onto the CD146 proteins concentrated on the glioblastoma tumors. They also tagged the antibody with a radioactive copper isotope, so the tumors could be easily identified and localized with a positron emission tomograph (PET), an imaging scanner commonly used to detect cancer.
Cai tested their antibody by implanting animal models with human glioblastoma tumors, injecting them with the antibody and imaging them with a small animal PET scanner. The copper-labeled antibody preferentially accumulated in the tumors, allowing PET imaging to accurately identify tumors as small as 2 mm. Their study results were recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
As Cai explained in a university news release:
We've created a tag that - at least in our mouse model - is highly specific for this aggressive brain cancer. If the technique proves out in further tests, it could be used to diagnose some strains of aggressive glioblastoma, and also to evaluate treatment progress or even to test potential drugs.
The researchers also found high activity of CD146 in ovarian, liver, and lung tumors so their antibody could have a wide range of applications. However, there is a lot of research to be done before the technique could be used in the clinic. Cai said in the news release, "This targets tumors with the worst survival, but I want to emphasize that human trials are some years in the future."
Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor.
Previously: You know it when you see it: a precision health approach to diagnosing brain cancer, A Stanford neurosurgeon discusses advances in treating brain tumors, and A century of brain imaging
Images by Weibo Cai/Department of Radiology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. On the left, the antibody is linked to a label that shows up in a PET scanner, and the aggressive cancer shines brightly. On the right, a similar cancer without the molecular marker is less obvious.