- Gene therapy may effectively treat glioma, a deadly form of brain cancer, but getting the right genes to cancer cells in the brain is difficult.
- For the first time, Johns Hopkins researchers used biodegradable nanoparticles to kill brain cancer cells in animals and lengthen their survival.
- The nanoparticles are filled with genes for an enzyme that turns a compound into a potent killer of cancer cells.
Despite improvements in the past few decades with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, a predictably curative treatment for glioma does not yet exist. New insights into specific gene mutations that arise in this often deadly form of brain cancer have pointed to the potential of gene therapy, but it’s very difficult to effectively deliver toxic or missing genes to cancer cells in the brain. Now, Johns Hopkins researchers report they have used nanoparticles to successfully deliver a new therapy to glioma cells in the brains of rats, prolonging their lives. A draft of the study appeared on the website of the journal ACS Nano.
Previous research on mice found that nanoparticles carrying genes can be taken up by brain cancer cells, and the genes can then be turned on. However, this is the first time these biodegradable nanoparticles have effectively killed brain cancer cells and extended survival in animals.
For their studies, the Johns Hopkins team designed and tested a variety of nanoparticles made from different polymers, or plastics. When they found a good candidate that could deliver genes to rat brain cancer cells, they filled the nanoparticles with DNA encoding an enzyme, herpes simplex virus type 1 thymidine kinase (HSVtk), which turns a compound with little effect into a potent therapy that kills brain cancer cells. When combined with the compound, called ganciclovir, these loaded nanoparticles were 100 percent effective at killing glioma cells grown in laboratory dishes.
“We then evaluated the system in rats with glioma and found that by using a method called intracranial convection-enhanced delivery, our nanoparticles could penetrate completely throughout the tumor following a single injection,” says Jordan Green, Ph.D, associate professor of biomedical engineering and ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins. “When combined with systemic administration of ganciclovir, rats with malignant glioma lived significantly longer than rats that did not receive this treatment.” (Intracranial convection-enhanced delivery uses a pressure gradient to enhance diffusion throughout the tumor.)
In addition to revealing that biodegradable polymeric nanoparticles represent a promising mode of gene delivery for glioma, the findings show that nonviral DNA delivery of HSVtk combined with administration of ganciclovir has potent antitumor effects. “To date, this type of system has only been used in humans with viral methods of gene delivery, of which the safety profiles are still heavily in debate,” says Betty Tyler, associate professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. “Additional studies are needed to see if these nanoparticles could also effectively deliver other antitumor genes for the treatment of brain tumors as well as systemic cancers.”
Green also noted that additional safety and efficacy studies are needed before the treatment makes its way to the clinic. “It also is unknown what the ideal gene combinations are that should be delivered using this nanoparticle delivery system,” he says. “We will move forward by evaluating this technology in additional brain cancer animal models.”
In its current form, Green envisions that the nanoparticles would be administered locally in the brain during the surgery that is commonly used to treat glioma. In the future, these nanoparticles may be able to be administered systemically rather than directly to the brain. “We are encouraged by these promising results and look forward to optimizing the intracranial distribution of this new nanoparticle gene therapy strategy,” says Tyler.
Other authors on the paper are Antonella Mangraviti, Stephany Y. Tzeng, Kristen L. Kozielski, Yuan Wang, Yike Jin, David Gullotti, Mariangela Pedone, Nitsa Buaron, Ann Liu, David R. Wilson, Sarah K. Hansen, Fausto J. Rodriguez, Guo-Dong Gao, Francesco DiMeco, Henry Brem and Alessandro Olivi.
This study was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (grant number 1R01EB016721).