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Biology Professor Searches for a Better Way to Treat a Rare Brain Cancer

Photo by Cole Wharton

Photo by Cole Wharton

Photo by Cole Wharton

Biology Professor Searches for a Better Way to Treat a Rare Brain Cancer

November 11, 2019

In the UM-Flint Biology department, a team of researchers have been looking into an alternative and hopefully more effective treatment for a particularly vicious type of cerebral cancer. 

Jerry Sanders, UM-Flint biology professor and lead researcher, is interested in how the immune system can help eliminate cancer. Through his research, Sanders is committed to finding a safer and more efficient method of curing and killing Glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma; a rare cancerous brain tumor, emerges after a series of mutations in ‘astrocytes,’ a type of cell found in the brain. The tumor forms quickly and acts aggressively, often causing symptoms like nausea, headaches and seizures. With side effects common to many other diseases and sicknesses, it can be hard to detect. 

According to Sanders, the alternative to surgery and chemotherapy he is researching relies on the heavy use of antibodies, a protein produced by white blood cells in the immune system that protect the body from viruses and bacteria.

Sanders describes the process as a “biological guided missile that will target the Glioblastoma cells wherever they are in the brain.”

To provide the antibodies necessary for testing, Sanders settled on lab mice. 

“The mice basically just take up the cancer molecules and produce an immune response to them which we’re able to take and use to kill off Glioblastoma in humans,” said Garber. “ … You have to harvest their B-cells which make antibodies.”

The tumor spreads to surrounding tissue in the brain, latching onto it. This makes surgery tedious and dangerous, due to the sheer amount of space the tumor has already taken over.

“[Astrocytes] are kind of marbled throughout your brain like fat in a steak” said microbiology major and lab assistant, John Garber. “So, it’s really hard to cut them out … using surgery which is why molecular approaches are so much better than surgical approaches.”

According to a 2018 study done by the National Cancer Registry of Ukraine, the average lifespan of an individual with Glioblastoma with no treatment is around 12.2 months + or – 0.2 months. With treatment, both chemotherapy and surgery combined, the survival rate only went up 1.18 months.

“They’ve tried a variety of things but they still haven’t gotten anything that is effective for long-term survival,” said Sanders. “Usually the initial approach to it is surgery and they remove as much as they can, but it forms little tendrils and, it’s hard to get it all, and those little tendrils grow back and spread.”

If their research pays off, Garber believes it will not just be a big success in the field of cancer research, but in the name of UM-Flint as well.

“I think when other students hear about UM-Flint doing research like this …  they’re really surprised,” Garber said. “ … I think this kind of research really gives UM-Flint a positive name in the national spotlight.” 

Garber continues, “I think we tend to be overshadowed a lot by Ann Arbor … And to do frontier research, you don’t have to go to a big school because we have it right here at UM-Flint.”

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 11 print issue of The Michigan Times.

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