Tom Wurdinger, a Dutch researcher who is connected to Harvard (Boston) and the VUmc Cancer Center in Amsterdam, has discovered the enzyme playing a very important role in the return of malign brain tumor after surgery and radiation. By making this enzyme inactive, the cancer cell can become disorganized and blow itself up. “Potentially an effective supplementary treatment method has been discovered for this very aggressive and practically always deadly type of cancer. Proof of the importance and potential of the Dutch life sciences & health sector,” says Willem de Laat, managing director of the Life Sciences & Health Innovation Program.
The most common and aggressive type of brain tumor is glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). The standard treatment for GBM is generally surgery, followed by a combination of radiation and chemotherapy, causing the DNA of the remaining cancer cells to be damaged. The DNA of the cancer cell determines what the cell should do, for example, double in size causing the tumor to grow. Since the cancer cells have the capacity of repairing the damaged DNA, for now the treatment is only partially effective, and eventually the tumor will always keep growing.
“We have discovered a certain type of enzyme that is responsible for the repair of the broken DNA in the brain tumor cell,” says the 31 year old Tom Wurdinger, co-director of the Neuro-oncology Research Group (NRG) of the VUmc.
“If this specific enzyme is slowed down by a chemical substance, that is, a potential remedy, we have discovered that we can confuse the cancer cell. It can’t find its way and will split up without repairing the damaged DNA. In this way the cell basically blows itself up.”
Life sciences and health according to the American model
De Laat, who lived and worked in America for several years, points out the positive development in the way in which the research organizations and medical centres are now organizing themselves by specializing and physically concentrating close by to each other. Wurdinger also confirms that this would never have been possible for him if his laboratory was not just a bridge away from the clinic. “In the VUmc, medical specialists and researchers are able to work so closely together because we are physically very close. A bridge was literally built across the Boelelaan in Amsterdam, between my workplace and the hospital. The neurosurgeons provide me with cancer cells that were removed from somebody’s head an hour earlier. This is invaluable to me.”
De Laat also points out the fact that the University Medical Centres understand more and more that pre-clinical research is very important. “Now they are organized in specialised national work groups which contribute to very short lines of communication. With breakthrough researches like this one and the collaboration between national work groups, the Cancer Centre at VUMC puts the Dutch life sciences & health sector on the map,” says Willem de Laat.
Zero percent chance of survival
At present, the healing percentage of the most aggressive brain tumor, GBM, is basically zero percent. Treatments are palliative: they aim at stretching a patient’s life and controlling and reducing symptoms as much as possible.
Source: Life Sciences & Health Innovatie Programma