The transformation that occurs as healthy brain cells begin to form tumors has been identified by scientists.
In their lab study, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) team found that the pool of cells from which oligodendroglioma tumors emerge normally divide "asymmetrically" by splitting into two unequal parts - like giving birth to fraternal twins who look different and have distinct fates.
When these normal cells transform into cancer cells, they switch gears and begin dividing symmetrically, essentially giving birth to identical twins instead.
"This happens early - before the tumor forms, and it may provide a point to intervene in the process of tumor initiation," said Claudia Petritsch, PhD, an assistant professor with the UCSF Brain Tumor Research Center who led the research.
Petritsch and her colleagues used genetically engineered mice to identify that a protein called NG2 controls this switch, and they are working on ways to target genes that regulate the process as a way of fighting oligodendroglioma and perhaps other brain tumors.
Oligodendrogliomas are unusual among brain tumors because they often respond to chemotherapy drugs. However, the tumor frequently returns in a form that is resistant to chemotherapy and requires repeated surgical removal.
The study has been published in the journal Cancer Cell.