Tackling Human Brain Tumors by First Growing Them in a Dish

February 21, 2022

For doctors and patients, the fight against cancer can be a lot like an exceedingly tricky version of the classic arcade game of whack-a-mole. You might beat back a tumor or part of a tumor, only to have another one pop up. To make matters worse, the “mallet” or treatment that successfully whacks the first tumor cells doesn’t always work on those arising later. You might need a new strategy or even an entirely different drug. It’s a tough game to win.

The reason it is often unsuccessful to apply a singular approach to beating cancer is that cancer cells evolve and change over time as cells divide and tumors expand. That ever-changing, increasingly heterogeneous nature of cancer has been a particular problem in effectively treating glioblastoma multiforme, a common and aggressive form of brain cancer. Even when treated with cancer-fighting drugs, only one out of three patients with glioblastoma multiforme are alive two years after their diagnosis.

“There might be a drug that works against the founding mutation in a tumor, but now this branch diverged and might then show resistance,” explained Albert Baldwin, Professor and Associate Director of Basic Research at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Or, added Donald Lo, Director of the Center for Drug Discovery and Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Duke, “maybe the cancer goes into apparent remission, but, as Al was saying, there’s this tendril—some branch that might go dormant during treatment—and when you go off the drug it has a chance to recur. It’s common when cancer recurs that it’s not exactly the same cancer. It’s still a brain tumor, but it has a different molecular composition.”


With support from the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSAs) at Duke and Carolina, Baldwin and Lo have teamed up to better understand the heterogeneity of brain cancer, using a new approach they’ve pioneered for growing and characterizing miniature human brain tumors in the lab. Ultimately, they hope to find new treatments or combinations of treatments to help more glioblastoma patients beat the odds.

Click HERE to read entire article from the Duke Clinical & Translational Science Institute website.