Autumn 2008

Erwin Van Meir portrait

Erwin Van Meir

University photo

Battling Brain Tumors

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When U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May, it was found to be a malignant glioma—the most common and most aggressive of the primary brain tumors. More than half of the 18,000 malignant brain tumors discovered each year in the country are glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), according to the National Cancer Institute. Patients with this deadly type of brain cancer have a two-year survival rate of 27 percent and a median survival time of slightly more than a year—not the kind of odds anyone wants to hear when facing an illness.

Researchers at the Winship Cancer Institute (WCI) are working to bring hope to people diagnosed with such tumors. A new set of molecular compounds has shown promise in reducing the growth of human brain tumors in animal models and may hold potential as a treatment for GBM and other cancers, says Professor Erwin Van Meir, codirector of the WCI’s Brain Tumor Program. “This new candidate drug may prove a valuable addition to the scarce arsenal of anti-tumor therapies available today,” says Van Meir, who also has been chosen by the National Institutes of Health to supply samples and clinical histories to help catalog genetic alterations in glioblastoma for the Cancer Genome Atlas.

The secret lies in attacking the tumor cells when they are stressed by a lack of available oxygen—a condition known as hypoxia. “Rapidly expanding tumors soon outgrow the capacity of existing blood vessels to deliver oxygen,” he explains. “To survive hypoxia, tumor cells modify their metabolism and induce growth of new blood vessels in the tumor.” Van Meir’s team has developed small molecules that interfere with this activity. This work is supported by the NCI, EmTechBio, the Geyer Foundation, and private brain tumor foundations.

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Autumn 2008

Of Note