Waldemar Debinski, M.D., Ph.D., a nationally recognized physician-scientist who pioneered a method to destroy malignant brain tumor cells without damaging healthy cells, came to Wake Forest Baptist last year to direct the Brain Tumor Center of Excellence.
The treatment Debinski developed is based on the discovery of an unusual feature of the cells of glioblastomas - the least curable of all human cancers. The majority of the 17,500 brain tumors diagnosed each year in the United States are glioblastomas. Patients have a median survival time of nine to 12 months and a five-year survival rate of 1 to 5 five percent.
Debinski found that glioblastoma cells have a particular type of receptor for interleukin 13 (IL 13), a naturally occurring protein that regulates the immune system in the body. Normal cells do not have these same receptors. Debinski developed a drug that combines a form of Il 13 with a toxin that kills cancer cells. By targeting the therapy to these receptors, the drug finds and kills the cancer cells.
While the first generation of the drug is being tested in patients, the grant will allow Debinski to work to improve this treatment approach. For example, he hopes to re-engineer Il 13 so that it recognizes cancer cells and completely spares normal tissues, something that cannot be achieved with normal chemotherapy.
"We want to examine opportunities to take full advantage of the unique presence of restricted IL 13 receptors in glioblastomas as a treatment target," he said.
With the research grant, he hopes to identify other agents that will bind to the IL 13 receptors besides IL 13. If they are able to find agents that are smaller than IL 13, more opportunities to deliver treatment to cancer cells will arise.
"Maybe there is a better agent than IL 13 itself," said Debinski. "Nature is great, but not perfect. Sometimes, we can make it even better for the benefit of our patients."
Other goals are to design tests to assist in drug development, so researchers can determine which potential drugs will be most beneficial in patients, and to learn if combining radiation therapy with drug therapy will improve results. Researchers also hope to learn how to not only deliver the drugs to cancer cells, but also to direct the movement of the drug within these cells.
Collaborators from the departments of neurosurgery, radiation oncology, cancer biology and pathology will participate in these studies.
Debinki's findings may eventually benefit patients with other types of cancer. The researchers have observed that some other cancers have the same IL 13 receptors found in glioblastomas.
Debinski's project is part of $4.5 million in research grants recently awarded to the Brain Tumor Center of Excellence. The goal of the center, which was formed in 2003, is to find better treatments - and one day a cure - for malignant brain tumors. In addition to its focus on research, the center provides a comprehensive program for patient care, and is the first center in the state to offer Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery, a knifeless approach to brain surgery and radiation therapy.
About Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center: Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university's School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,282 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of "America's Best Hospitals" by U.S. News & World Report.