Potential New Treatment for Deadliest Brain Diseases

Dec 5, 2018

People suffering from two of our most deadly diseases may someday benefit from a new approach being studied at Virginia Tech. Glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, the fifth largest killer of people over 65, share a similar disease process even though they’re very different conditions. 

Jennifer Munson works with cell culture media in her lab in Virginia Tech's Kelly Hall. Munson and her collaborators at the University of Virginia discovered that dysfunction of drainage pathways in the brain can aggravate cognitive decline as well as Alzheimer’s disease pathology. The discovery also shows promise for other brain diseases, such as Glioblastoma.
Credit Virginia Tech

It has to do with the way fluids flow inside the human brain.  In patients with the brain cancer, glioblastoma, the tumor increases pressure in brain. That causes fluids inside the skull to move faster, carrying cancer cells to other parts of the brain and ultimately making it impossible to treat. In Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, it’s the opposite problem: Brain fluids flowing too slowly.  That sluggishness causes certain harmful proteins to build up in the brain, causing cognitive decline.

Biomedical Engineer Jennifer Munson is leading a five year, multi university research project on these relatively unexplored effects of fluid flow in the brain.

“I think that’s what’s really interesting about this pair of publications is, that, in one, faster flow is negative and in the other, we’re actually trying to make flow faster. As you age, the fluid flow in your brain slows down. And we don’t fully understand why that happens, but this paper is the first to link slowing fluid flow and the ability to increase it back to what might be more normal, you might even say more youthful," Munson says.  "It might increase your cognitive ability.”

She points out that in tests on mice that did not have cognitive impairment, slowing down fluid flow in the brain did not show any benefit. It was only in mice that had cognitive slow down, that speeding up their fluid flow made a difference.

And for glioblastoma, it’s the opposite situation; there the goal is to slow down a slightly different kind of brain fluid. This would keep cancer cells from quickly spreading the disease, allowing doctors to treat it with drugs. The team has identified a drug that can alter fluid flow in the brain and the hope is, that this new approach, may hold promise for these and perhaps other currently untreatable diseases.

Chase Cornelison is a post-doctoral researcher at Virginia Tech and lead author of an article published in Scientific Reports that details a solution to stopping the spread of glioblastoma in the brain.
Credit Virginia Tech