2 min readStudy Shows Aggressive Brain Tumours Can Originate from a Range of Nervous System Cells

The blue, green, red and yellow in this image indicate that these neurons are producing proteins typical of immature nerve cells, evidence that they have reverted to a stem cell-like state. Salk scientists found that mature cortical neurons are capable of reverting to this immature state and developing into an aggressive type of brain tumor that was previously thought to only develop from neural stem cells or glia, another type of cell in the brain. Image: Courtesy of Dinorah Friedmann-Morvinski

La Jolla, CA – Scientists have long believed that glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most aggressive type of primary brain tumour, begins in glial cells that make up supportive tissue in the brain or in neural stem cells.

In a paper published October 18 in Science Express, however, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have found that the tumours can originate from other types of differentiated cells in the nervous system, including cortical neurons.

GBM is one of the most devastating brain tumours that can affect humans. Despite progress in genetic analysis and classification, the prognosis of these tumours remains poor, with most patients dying within one to two years of diagnosis. The Salk researcher’s findings offer an explanation for the recurrence of GBM following treatment and suggest potential new targets to treat these deadly brain tumours.

“One of the reasons for the lack of clinical advances in GBMs has been the insufficient understanding of the underlying mechanisms by which these tumours originate and progress,” says Inder Verma, a professor in Salk’s Laboratory of Genetics and the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science.

To better understand this process, Verma’s team harnessed the power of modified viruses, called lentiviruses, to disable powerful tumour suppressor genes that regulate the growth of cells and inhibit the development of tumours. With these tumour suppressors deactivated, cancerous cells are given free rein to grow out of control.

To do that, Verma and his colleagues attached small RNA molecules, known as short hairpin RNAs, to the modified viruses and injected them directly into very few cells in the brains of genetically engineered mice that express an enzyme known as CRE specifically in neurons, astrocytes or neural stem cells. The modified viruses target two genes—-neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1) and p53—-that, when mutated, are implicated in severe gliomas like GBM. Using sophisticated analytical techniques, they discovered that neurons genetically converted by the lentiviruses that also produce green fluorescent protein (GFP) as a marker to track the progression of tumours are capable of forming malignant gliomas.

Because the origin of glioblastomas from neurons has not been previously reported, the Salk scientists provided further evidence that mature neurons can be transformed by these oncogenes by isolating cortical neurons from genetically engineered mice and transducing them with one of the lentiviruses. The neurons that were transplanted back into the mice developed the same tumours as the ones in the laboratory.

“Our findings,” says lead author Dinorah Friedmann-Morvinski, a postdoctoral researcher in the Laboratory of Genetics, “suggest that, when two critical genes—-NF-1 and p53—-are disabled, mature, differentiated cells acquire the capacity to reprogram [dedifferentiate] to a neuroprogenitor cell-like state, which can not only maintain their plasticity, but also give rise to the variety of cells observed in malignant gliomas.”

If scientists can block the process of dedifferentiation or proliferation of dedifferentiated neuroprogenitor cells, they may be able to stop tumour progression. That’s important in an aggressive disease like GBM because of its high rate of recurrence.

“Our results offer an explanation of recurrence of gliomas following treatment,” says Verma, “because any tumour cell that is not eradicated can continue to proliferate and induce tumour formation, thereby perpetuating the cycle of continuous cell replication to form malignant gliomas.”

The scientists say the tumours in their mouse model are similar to GBMs that affect humans. Because they have the same pathology and characteristic genetic signature, scientists can study potential therapies in mice that should, theoretically, work in humans. While they may not eradicate GBM, these therapies may slow the progression of the disease and improve patients’ quality of life.

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