Brain cancer therapy pioneered in dogs wins NCI grant for human development

Dogs with spontaneously occurring, highly aggressive brain tumors such as glioblastoma multiforme have proven to be highly accurate models of human brain cancer. So when the owners of a 12-year-old mixed-breed dog with glioblastoma showed up at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine having exhausted all other treatment options, they agreed to try an experimental technology called nonthermal irreversible electroporation.

The technique, developed by faculty members at Virginia Tech, added 5 months to the dog's life. And it caught the attention of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which just rewarded the school a $386,149 research grant to develop the technology for use in people.

Electroporation involves exposing cancer cells to targeted electrical pulses that permeate the cells' membranes and cause them to die. The therapy is delivered via electrodes that can be placed in the brain in a minimally invasive procedure. The pulses can be "tuned" to target malignant cells, according to a press release from Virginia Tech. That sets the therapy apart from chemotherapy and radiation, which damage both cancerous and healthy cells.

Scott Verbridge

The Virginia Tech team published the results of the dog trial in a 2011 issue of Technology Cancer Research and Treatment, and since then they've been perfecting it in preparation for trying it in people. "We believe our studies will provide a significant advancement in our understanding of glioma biology and point to new treatment possibilities," said Scott Verbridge, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech, in the release.

The NCI has been particularly supportive of therapies that have been proven successful in veterinary trials. In October, Seattle-based Blaze Bioscience won a $1.5 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II award from the NCI to continue developing its Tumor Paint BLZ-100, a fluorescent molecule that helps surgeons visualize cancer cells so they can remove them effectively. The company nabbed the NCI funding based on a trial in 27 dogs with various tumor types.

The Virginia Tech therapy has been patented, and Verbridge and his team plan to use the grant to further measure the impact of varying the electrical pulses according to cell type.

- here's the release
- access the 2011 journal article here