Leeds scientists make breakthrough with potential brain tumour treatment

A new study has revealed that targeting the RAD51 molecule could potentially help oncologists treat aggressive brain tumours.

Although the molecule helps cells to repair their DNA, the new study has found that targeting the molecule actually increased the effectiveness of radiotherapy to kill glioblastoma. The University of Leeds carried out the study with funding from Cancer Research UK, and the findings were published in Stem Cell Reports.

Glioblastomas are the most common type of brain tumour affecting adults, treatment for which typically has a low rate of success. It is estimated that less than five in every 100 patients with the disease will live beyond five years after their diagnosis.

While the treatment is some years off being suitable for use in clinical trials, these initial results are a step in the right direction, according to Dr. Justine Alford, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer. “This promising study in cells and mice may have found a way to cut off the tumour’s fuel supply,” she said, adding that the approach “could one day help treatments target the disease more precisely and effectively.”

What is RAD51?

RAD51 is a gene that assists with the “homologous recombination and repair of DNA,” or in other words, helps cancer cells repair following radiotherapy treatment.

Researchers believed that one of the reasons glioblastoma cells proved so hard to treat is because of the presence of this RAD51, which leads to cells being able to duplicate quickly and make copies that are highly resistant to treatment. Given that this subgroup of troublesome cells – called glioblastoma stem cells (GSCs) – contained such high levels of the RAD51, researchers used an inhibitor drug on mice that would in effect target this molecule. “By targeting RAD51 with an inhibitor we were able to make these GSCs more sensitive to the effects of radiotherapy, helping remove the tumour,” reveals Dr. Susan Short, lead author of the study. “The exact mechanism by which RAD51 becomes increased in cells that survive radiotherapy is not yet known, but our study provides strong evidence that this is the right protein to target in the treatment of this aggressive brain cancer.”

This most recent study therefore brings welcome news to the cancer research community, following one from Cambridge University last year. As reported on by Ajan Reginald, the research presented a clearer picture of how and why cancer develops, potentially taking scientists one step closer to finding a cure.