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What Is Glioblastoma? How Scientists Are Working To Cure This Aggressive Form Of Cancer

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- It's a deadly form of cancer that's aggressive and right now there is no cure. But scientists are hoping to change that with a little help from man's best friend.

A glioblastoma is a type of cancer that occurs in the brain and spinal cord, according to the Mayo Clinic.

It's the type of cancer that plagued late senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy as well as Beau Biden, the late son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

The exact underlying cause of glioblastoma is unknown in most cases, but in some, it's linked to genetic syndromes: neurofibromatosis type 1, Turcot syndrome and Li Fraumeni syndrome, according to NIH.

Glioblastomas can occur sporadically and in people with no family history of tumors. It can occur at any age, but tends to occur in older adults. As it worsens, headaches, nausea, vomiting and seizures are regular symptoms.

Doctors will use neurological exams, MRIs and a biopsy to diagnose this type of cancer.

As for treatment, it depends on the patients, but surgery to remove the glioblastoma, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted drug therapy are commons ways to treat cancer. Patients may also sign up for clinical trials or try supported palliative care to treat it.

Approximately 14,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year in the U.S., and the cancer is also prevalent in canines — especially small, short-nosed breeds.

Which is why scientists are hoping dogs could help them find a cure. Right now, there are several trials underway or about to get underway to treat dogs with cancer. Researchers at Johns Hopkins are hoping if these trials are successful it could ultimately help humans too.

"One obstacle to treating brain cancers like glioblastoma with conventional therapy are the toxic effects radiation has on the normal brain tissue surrounding the tumor. By delivering radiation directly to the tumor through the blood vessels that flow into it, we hope to reduce radiation exposure to the healthy parts of the brain," said Dr. Clifford Weiss, an associate professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Weiss and a team are working with a treatment called yttrium-90 (Y90) radioembolization to shrink brain tumors in dogs. It has previously been used to treat liver cancer. The procedure takes a tiny glass or resin beads filled with radioactive isotope yttrium Y-90 are placed inside the blood vessels that feed a tumor. That blocks the supply of blood to the cancer cells and delivers a high dose of radiation to the tumor without damaging surrounding normal tissue.

Could Canine Patients Help Find A Cure For One Of The Deadliest Cancers?

Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center was recently given funding to research a new experimental treatment on dogs who've been diagnosed with brain cancer -- in hopes that the treatment will ultimately save humans.

It combines heat and radiation to directly destroy cancer cells and the hope is, if it works in canines it can then be tested on humans.

Dr. Robert Ivkov has developed a way to take an iron oxide nanoparticle, inject it into a tumor and then heat it using a magnetic field. So far they've only tested it on mice, but they are looking for canine cancer patients to try the protocol on.

The same treatment is already being used on humans in Berlin, Germany. Charité Hospital started human trials in 2003 and has also used this treatment on breast cancer as well.

Researchers at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is also treating canine cancer to ultimately find a cure for human cancer, but they are actually injecting the tumor with cytoxins. The cytoxins are delivered through a catheter inserted into the tumor and infused slowly over several hours.

The college received a $9.2 million, 5-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute grant in Jan. 2018 to test the treatment.

Learn more about the research at Johns Hopkins on Monday at 5 p.m. & 11 p.m. on WJZ


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