Viral brain cancer theory comes of age

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great article about Dr Charles Cobbs, a neurosurgeon who had the seemingly wacky idea that malignant brain tumours called gliomas might be caused by a viral infection. Initially dismissed, there is now growing evidence for his idea and how it might lead to better prevention and treatment for these usually fatal forms of brain cancer.

Gliomas are tumour that form from glial cells – non-neuronal brain cells that provide support, nutrition protection and some just-recognised roles in signalling.

As you might expect, they are an essential part of almost every part the brain and a malignant tumour which grows from glial cells can be fatal (without treatment, within about 3 months) as they are very difficult to remove and treat.

Cobbs had observed that his patients diagnosed with malignant glioma – an aggressive brain cancer that leaves victims with a two-year life expectancy – were mostly older, well-educated and from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Their “hyper-hygienic” lifestyles had possibly left their immune systems susceptible to more common viruses, such as the human cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a herpes virus so ubiquitous that it infects 4 of 5 Americans.

During off-hours, and without formal research funding, Cobbs and a lab partner analyzed dozens of brain tumor samples: All of them were riddled with CMV. In 2002, the doctor published his novel finding in a leading medical journal Cancer Research where it was quickly dismissed by many of his peers. “I was left with a lot of self doubt,” said Cobbs, now 45. “My fear was that we’d done something incorrect. But now, my confidence is growing.”

In February, brain cancer researchers at Duke University Medical Center published the first peer-reviewed report that confirmed Cobbs’ discovery, followed by two reports from independent labs at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas in Houston and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. And this month, the National Brain Tumor Society is sponsoring a first-of-its-kind gathering in Boston of the world’s top virologists and glioma experts to examine the possible link between CMV and the deadly brain tumors that are diagnosed in 10,000 Americans every year.

The photos accompanying the piece are excellent by the way. The image I’ve used to illustrate this post is particularly impressive – click on it to see the full-size version which you need to get the full effect.

Nature also ran a piece about Cobbs last month owing to the publication of one of his studies in the same issue where he discovered one of key receptors on which the CMV virus has its action.

Unfortunately, I can’t read either as Nature’s Athens login system is currently broken [insert your own rant about open-access publishing here].

Link to SFChronicle article ‘Surgeon changes study of brain tumors’.

One Comment

  1. Posted October 8, 2008 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    [Shame on them, because for that policy we never get a truly society based on knowledge and information with better patterns and economic models of growth]
    In relation to the post, i m now fan of Dr. Cobbs.
    By the way, the study is at scribd.


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