Chemical That Makes Brain Tumors Glow Could Make Glioblastoma Surgery Safer

Doctors perform brain surgery with microscope.
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A glowing chemical that lights up brain tumors may help surgeons remove dangerous cancer cells more accurately, revealed a new study presented at the National Cancer Research Conference in Glasgow.

Researchers found that using the chemical to highlight the cancerous cells may help ensure the tumors are identified and the healthy brain tissues are not harmed during brain surgery of patients with glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma is an aggressive cancer that begins in the brain. Ninety percent of adults with this form of brain cancer die within 24 months after diagnosis.

The condition can be very difficult to treat, but treatments can slow the progression of the cancer and reduce the symptoms.

These treatments usually involve surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Unfortunately, surgeons often find it difficult to identify all of the cancer cells while avoiding the healthy brain tissues.

Findings of the new research suggest that using a fluorescent marker that can distinguish aggressive cancer cells can make these brain surgeries safer and lengthen the survival of patients with the disease.

Colin Watts, chairman of the Brain Cancer Program at the University of Birmingham, and colleagues, used a compound known as 5-aminolevulinic acid or 5-ALA that glows pink when light is shone on it.

Image shows blurred figures of doctors performing brain surgery on patient.
  VILevi / Shutterstock

Earlier studies show that when consumed, the chemical accumulates in fast growing cancer cells, which means that it can serve as a fluorescent marker of high-grade cells.

Watts and colleagues involved patients with suspected high-grade gliomas. Prior to the surgery to remove their brain tumors, the patients were given a drink with 5-ALA and evaluated for signs of fluorescence.

The surgeons who operated them then used operating microscopes to look for the glowing tissue while removing the tumors.

Of the 99 patients who took part in the trial, the surgeons reported seeing fluorescent tissue in 85 cases. Further tests conducted by pathologists also found that 81 of these patients had high-grade disease. Those without noticeable glowing tissues were all found to have low-grade disease.

Watts said that the advantage of the technique is that it can highlight more quickly the high-grade disease within a tumor during surgery, which means that surgeons can remove more of the tumors more safely and with fewer complications, which is beneficial for the patients.

“Neurosurgeons need to be able to distinguish tumor tissue from other brain tissue, especially when the tumor contains fast-growing, high-grade cancer cells,” Watts said, according to The Telegraph. “These results show that the marker is very good at indicating the presence and location of high-grade cancer cells.”