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Nanotechnology could help understand how glioblastomas respond to treatment

A new nanosurgical tool – about 500 times thinner than a human hair – could help us understand how glioblastomas become resistant to radio- and chemotherapy. Up until now, no other technology has been able to do this.

Scientist looking into microscope exploring using nanotechnology to research glioblastoma brain tumours

Glioblastomas are aggressive brain tumours. They are treated with radiotherapy and temozolomide chemotherapy but almost always grow back after treatment.  

Expanding Theories 

Researchers have little understanding of how glioblastoma cells survive treatment. So scientists at the University of Leeds set out to find out more. This work was funded by one of our Expanding Theories grants. This is a grant round that supports pilot studies which explore and develop novel concepts that may eventually lead to significant improvements in care for people diagnosed with a brain tumour. 

Sampling cells with nanotechnology 

With the use of this nanotechnology scientists were able to take samples from glioblastoma cells without killing them. Something that has never been done before now.  

Typically, analysing cells from a tumour has been difficult and involved killing the cells to extract information from them. However, using this nanotechnology keeps the cells alive and ‘biopsies’ them rather than killing them.  

Cells grown in the lab were ‘biopsied’ before and after treatment with radio- and chemotherapy. This allowed researchers to see how the cells changed in response to these treatments.  

The results identified key changes in the cells after treatment. These could play an important role in how the cells become resistant to first line treatment and impact how cells respond to future treatment.  

Ultimately, this could inform new treatments for glioblastoma and other cancers in the future. 

The findings are published in the journal Science Advances.

Significant breakthrough 

Dr Lucy Stead, who received our funding, is an Associate Professor of Brain Cancer Biology at the University of Leeds School of Medicine.  

“This is a significant breakthrough. It is the first time that we have a technology where we can actually monitor the changes taking place after treatment, rather than just assume them. This type of technology is going to provide a layer of understanding that we have simply never had before. And that new understanding and insight will lead to new weapons in our armoury against all types of cancer" – Dr Lucy Stead

Lucy continued: “Glioblastoma is the cancer in most need of those new weapons because in 20 years there has been no improvement in survival in this disease.  

“It is lagging behind so much. And we think that is because of the tumour cells develop a resistance to treatment. 

“That is why it is so important that we can observe and understand these cells as they change. Then we can map out the journey these cells can take, and subsequently find ways to stop them at every turn. We simply couldn’t do that with the technologies that we had.” 

Nanotechnology and how it works 

The researchers used a nanosurgical platform which used microscopic needles to extract a sample from a glioblastoma cell. The needles were controlled by robotic software as they are too tiny to be manipulated by hand.  

This technique allowed researchers to study glioblastoma cells over 72 hours by taking samples before and after treatment to observe how the cells respond to radio- and chemotherapy.  

Unprecedented precision 

A researcher on this project, Dr Fabio Marcuccio, Research Associate in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, said: “Our device allows the study of the way brain cancer cells adapt to treatment over time, with unprecedented precision. This tool will provide data that could lead to significant improvements in cancer treatment and prognoses.” 

What does our expert think? 

Dr Simon Newman, Chief Scientific Officer at The Brain Tumour Charity said: “We know glioblastoma cells respond differently to treatment, often developing treatment resistance which leads to recurrence. The development of this novel technology, which can extract samples from tumour cells grown in the lab before and after treatment, will give a unique insight into how drug resistance may develop and lead to tumours growing back. 

“We hope that this important work, funded by The Brain Tumour Charity, will improve our knowledge of these complex brain tumours and allow us to find new, more effective treatments. 

Find out more about this nanotechnology research

Dr Lucy Stead sits at a desk, smiling at the camera, while carrying out nanotechnology research

Dr Lucy Stead