Letting the Hounds Loose on Brain Tumors
Date: November 1, 2011
Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa has devoted his career to helping brain tumor patients, in both the operating room and the laboratory. But the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon prefers to emphasize what many of his patients do to help him—namely, grant him permission to keep and study any brain tissue he removes during surgery to get at a tumor. “It’s an enormous gift,” he says. “It makes everything I do possible.”
What Quiñones does with that gift is work to figure out how to get the brain to fight tumors on its own. To that end, he has helped uncover evidence that some of the cells in the brain may be stem cells. And the particular stem cells on which Quiñones focuses, a type found in fat tissue, have a unique property: They seek out brain tumors. “These are very smart cells,” he says. “Like a dog on the hunt, they follow a chemical signal to zero in on the tumors.”
Scientists aren’t sure what effect these stem cells have on tumors. But it doesn’t matter, says Quiñones, because he intends to alter the cells to aggressively attack them. “I want to give the cells weapons, and turn them into the Special Forces of the brain,” he says. He notes that a highly targeted antitumor therapy that comes from the patient’s own body might not be as hard on the patient as chemotherapy and other conventional therapies sometimes are—and could potentially be more effective.
The trick for Quiñones will be figuring out how to usefully alter the stem cells. Part of the problem is that everyone’s cells are different, and each person’s brain tumor is unique as well, which means the stem cells would have to be custom tailored in each case to fight a specific tumor. But Quiñones thinks he may have a strategy for doing exactly that. His idea is to take tumor and stem cells from a patient and determine by working with mice exactly the right way to turn those stem cells against the tumor.
“My dream is that every patient treated for a brain tumor will have that weapon waiting in case there’s a recurrence,” he says. “We can’t say this would be a cure, but it might make brain cancer a much more treatable and tolerable disease.”
- Challenge: Use the patient’s own cells to effectively fight brain tumors
- Approach: Modify stem cells from the patient’s brain to seek out and destroy tumor cells
- Progress: Tumor-seeking stem cells have been found in the brain; making them deadly is under study