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Dr. Sontheimer part of team converging on strategies to defeat forms of brain cancer

August 1, 2017

Harald Sontheimer, the director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer and executive director of the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science, has worked on a novel therapy that uses an existing FDA-approved drug to slow tumor growth.

Dr. Sontheimer is featured in an exciting article about his participation in research for glioblastomas.  Research teams at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute from three colleges — Engineering, Science, and Veterinary Medicine — are developing new approaches to treat glioblastoma, the aggressive form of brain cancer recently diagnosed in U.S. Sen. John McCain.

About half of glioblastoma patients die within the first 12 to 18 months of diagnosis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Overall, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute is positioned to have important impact in developing innovative therapies for treating glioblastoma,” said Michael J. Friedlander, founding executive director of the research institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “With complementary research approaches in several laboratories here, we are committed to bringing cutting-edge science to bear on this devastating disorder that has evaded substantial progress for too long.”

In 2015, the research institute established the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer to tackle many of the brain disorders where glial cells play a central role, including the urgent challenge to develop new, effective therapies for glioblastoma.

Sontheimer, the director of the center, and his team are taking an innovative approach to personalized cancer medicine by evaluating the effectiveness of an FDA-approved drug sulfasalazine to target a molecular transport process that is particularly highly expressed in some patients' glioblastomas to prevent further brain damage due to the tumor destroying neighboring brain tissue through a process called excitotoxicity.

The drug is routinely used for another purpose — to treat inflammatory bowel disease. 

In preclinical studies, tumor-bearing mice treated with sulfasalazine twice daily showed a reduction in seizures and slowed tumor growth.

Moreover, these tumors often cause seizures and kill surrounding brain tissue through the release of toxic glutamate. In a clinical pilot trial with nine patients who received acute doses of sulfasalazine while being imaged for glutamate, results showed sulfasalazine was able to inhibit toxic glutamate release from the tumor.

As a result, together with the Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Comprehensive Cancer Center in North Carolina, researchers have begun a clinical trial that will treat patients with sulfasalazine in conjunction with the chemotherapeutic temozolomide and radiation in hopes to slow tumor growth.

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