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Here’s how an old-school drug could beat brain cancer - by starving it to death

Old drug, new tricks.

DAVID NIELD
20 MAY 2016
 

An international team of scientists has found that flavopiridol, a synthetic flavonoid used in the past to treat various forms of cancer, could also be repurposed to play a crucial role in the fight against brain tumours.

The stakes are high: glioblastomas, which flavopiridol could be used to tackle, are the most common form of brain cancer, and right now, there is no cure.

 

Just 30 percent of patients with glioblastoma in the US live more than two years after diagnosis, and an estimated 12,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in the US in 2016.

Thanks to work from researchers in the US, Italy, and the UK, it appears flavopiridol can be used to starve glioblastoma tumours of sugar and suppress cancer growth. Glioblastoma cells rely on high levels of glucose to spread, and they do so rapidly, making it difficult for doctors treat them.

Glioblastomas reprogram their own metabolisms to enable fast and incurable growth, which is one of the reasons why this type of cancer is so dangerous. But the same activity that makes them so stubborn could also prove to be their downfall – flavopiridol is capable of specifically targeting this metabolic switching and, according to the new tests, cut off the tumour's energy supply.

"The design of new flavopiridol-based formulations, aimed at starving cancer cells [by] cutting short the sugar they're addicted to, may open up new therapeutic avenues for patients with glioblastoma," said one of the researchers, Antonio Giordano from the Sbarro Health Research Organisation (SHRO) in Philadelphia.

Flavopiridol has been used to treat many types of cancer in the past, including breast and prostate cancers, and can be effective at inhibiting cancer growth and increasing the effectiveness of chemotherapy. However, its link to the suppression of glioblastoma glucose intake is new, and scientists are now hoping to carry out further studies to see how it could be incorporated into effective treatments.

It's not our only angle of attack against glioblastoma. In other research, scientists at Duke University have been granted 'breakthrough' status by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for their work on a polio virus-related therapy to tackle the disease.

 

This special recognition from the FDA reflects the potential effectiveness of the new approach when compared to existing treatments.

In essence, the polio virus variation is engineered to attack and kill off the cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells ones alone – not an easy balancing act to pull off.

With both the Duke University project and flavopiridol discovery offering new avenues for glioblastoma treatment, let's hope in the years to come, the diagnoses for those contracting this type of brain cancer ends up looking a lot more positive.

The flavopiridol study has been published in The Journal of Cellular Physiology.

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