Researchers at the University of Calgary may have found a way to prolong the life of people living with an aggressive type of brain cancer.

Scientists at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and Southern Alberta Cancer Research Institute (SACRI) used human brain tumour-initiating cells from 100 glioblastoma patients to test a drug that could target the disease.

The cells were inserted into an animal model and researchers found that when the drug, AZD8055, was combined with Temozolomide (TMZ), a drug already taken by most glioblastoma patients, the life of the animals was extended by 30 percent.

“TMZ is already given to patients in clinic. This drug works beautifully on its own on the cells directly but in the animals what we found is that it worked best when given together,” said Research Assistant Professor Artee Luchman, PhD.

The new therapy is used to inhibit a pathway in the cancer cells known as mTOR signaling and scientists say that, combined with the current standard therapy, caused more of the cancer cells to die.

“Shutting off vital tumour growth processes can lead to the death of human brain tumour-initiating cells. Our research has identified a key process in brain tumour growth that we were able to target with AZD8055,” said Luchman.

“This drug blocks a signaling pathway within cells, particularly active in cancer cells that cause them to divide. So it inhibits this signal to divide. So we combine that effect of the drug with DNA damaging properties of Temozolomide and you get a synergy that is reflected in better tumour control,” said Dr. Greg Cairncross.

Glioblastoma is the most common and deadly form of brain cancer among adults and tumours are often difficult to treat.

“We have multiple tests along the way that we look for outcomes in our experiments and so far this particular trial has done what we hoped for in the lab on the cells themselves so the next stage is to take it and use it on people to see if we see the same effects which is basically to kill the cancer in the brain,” said Luchman.

Less than five percent of patients with the disease survive longer than five years and doctors believe the approach could augment traditional treatments and perhaps prolong life.

“Thousands of people in the country have this illness,” said Dr. Cairncross. “Yea it would make a big difference in their lives if we could add a medication to their current program of treatment that gives extra benefit.”

“Discovering new pathways and therapies that can be tested in the clinic provides the greatest hope for brain cancer patients and their families,” said Dr. Samuel Weiss, leader of the university’s Brain and Mental Health strategic research priority. “The fact that at the same time as we’re announcing the publication, we’re announcing the first clinical trial demonstrates a new strategy to quickly move new discoveries towards testing in people. Hopefully at the same time if it shows promise, we can also have a rapid movement towards a wide spread use of the compound but it has to be tested very carefully to ensure that it does good for our patient population.”

The group’s findings will be published in the medical journal, Clinical Cancer Research, on Tuesday and the clinical trial is expected to get underway in Canada as early as the spring of 2015.