Home > News > New study says Alzheimer’s drug may be key to stop spread of aggressive brain cancers

New study says Alzheimer’s drug may be key to stop spread of aggressive brain cancers

By Kyle Glennie
Posted December 4, 2008

Photo by Chris Kindratsky

Photo by Chris Kindratsky

Researchers working jointly for the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services have discovered a way to help stop aggressive brain tumours from spreading by using an existing drug that is being tested for Alzheimer’s patients.  The findings are published in the scientific journal Public Library of Science Biology.

Dr. Peter Forsyth, and Donna Senger, PhD, along with their colleagues identified a “switch” that enables brain cancer cells to journey outwards from the primary tumour. They first discovered the switch in August 2007, which is a mechanism that allows brain tumours to invade and spread within the brain.   Their research focused on malignant gliomas-highly invasive tumours that are extremely resistant to conventional treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.

Forsyth and Senger found the switch is activated by a protein that is already present in the brain.  Now, with the laboratories of Stephen Robbins, PhD, a member of the Alberta Cancer Research Institute and Samuel Weiss, PhD, the Director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Faculty of Medicine, they’ve found a way to stop this protein from activating the switch.

“We’ve basically found this switch is turned on when it is cut by “a pair of scissors” found in our brains.  What’s exciting is that we’ve discovered there is a family of drugs that block these scissors from cutting the protein and it’s already being tested in Alzheimer’s patients,” says Forsyth.  “We’ve also found this process is present in cancer stem cells which many believe accounts for failures of our treatments in many patients.”

With these drugs already in clinical testing, Forsyth and Senger are optimistic they will be able to further their effectiveness on malignant gliomas in their own clinical trials much faster.

“A lot of background work has been done with these drugs already in terms of understanding their dose and side effects, so we’re hopeful that we can move this rapidly into the clinic,” says Forsyth.

Partnerships made it possible

Ken Hughes, chair of the Alberta Health Services Board, says the research demonstrates the value of partnership between universities and health care. “It’s exciting to see these researchers planning to take discoveries like this to clinical trial here in Alberta, where Alberta patients  can be the first to benefit.”

“One of my ministry’s priorities is bringing technology to market, and technology often starts with research” said Doug Horner, Minister of Advanced Education and Technology. “In the coming years, Albertans will hear more about our province’s leadership in research and innovation, including research to create new drugs to treat cancer, new devices to diagnose it and, as in this case, new ways to repurpose today’s medical advances for tomorrow’s patients.”

The next step for the researchers is two-fold: to find a specific drug within the drug family to test in a clinical setting, and to make the drug as effective and as safe as possible.  They also have another funding grant in place that allows them to try and redesign these drugs to better suit their purpose, something they are also investigating.

Patient says the treatment gives new hope

Rob Evans was not part of the study but as someone who was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour 15 years ago he says the research provides patients with new hope and the potential of less invasive treatment. Evans’ treatment regiment included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.  “Any time you can do reduce the stress for someone dealing with cancer and provide a better chance of survival you’ve hit a home run.”

While the team’s research focused on brain tumours, the findings could also have an impact on the treatment of other types of cancers.  Skin cancer is also spread through the activation of a switch by this type of protein, and Forsyth would like to try this new approach on melanoma.

“It’s an interesting idea that you can use a drug to block the invasion of cancer cells into normal human tissue, but to have that drug already being used in clinical trials is a dream come true,” he said.

Dr. Peter Forsyth is a professor in the departments of Oncology, Clinical Neurosciences, and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the Faculty of Medicine. He is also the southern Director of ACRI (the Alberta Cancer Research Institute), the Associate Director of Research at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, and is a former director of the Clark H. Smith Brain Tumor Centre.

Donna Senger, PhD, is a research assistant professor in the department of Oncology at the Faculty of Medicine, and has been a part of Dr. Forsyth’s research group since 2000.  Senger has contributed regularly to numerous studies and publications that are directly focused on increasing our understanding of brain tumour progression and therapeutic intervention.

Stephen Robbins, PhD is an associate professor in the departments of Oncology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Faculty of Medicine.  He is a scientist of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR) and currently holds a Canada Research Chair in the Cancer Biology.

Samuel Weiss, PhD, is a professor in the department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Faculty of Medicine.  He is the Director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and is a scientist of the AHFMR.  Weiss was a recent recipient of the very prestigious Gairdner Award for his discovery of neural stem cells.

Their work is supported in part by a generous donation from the Clark H. Smith family, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Alberta Health Services–(Alberta Cancer Board) and the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

A copy of the study can be downloaded at:


  1. joshjoshn
    December 18, 2008 at 10:35 am

    really great story guys for more info on dca and other alternative therapies [find us on the web]

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