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Glioblastoma killed senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy. Up to 15,000 people are diagnosed with it every year. It is virtually always fatal. But researchers at Northwestern University have been hoping to make a difference for years. Scientists developed nanoparticle technology they hoped would effectively target the deadliest form of brain cancer.

Now there has been a breakthrough –  literally and figuratively. 

In the lab, nanoparticle spheres, packed with RNA are poised to deliver a deadly message to cancer cells. They moved freely through the bloodstream and cross the protective blood-brain barrier and penetrating tumor cells, ultimately sparking cell death.

WGN’s Medical Watch team first covered the technology back in 2013. Just this week, they spoke with Northwestern’s Dr. Priya Kumthekar.

“When we look at them in a lab setting, we can see a lot of impact,” Kumthekar said. “But it’s a totally different game when we’re talking about getting it to the brain tumor of our patients.”

Doctors hoped the same thing would happen in humans.

“There hasn’t been a new drug approval for glioblastoma in over a decade and there’s a lot of different reasons to make this tumor challenging to treat,” Kumthekar said.

To test out the nanoparticle and determine its safety, researchers enrolled eight glioblastoma patients in a small study. Tahaira Sanders was among them.

“You don’t want to have this disease and just have it and that’s it. It makes you want to do your part,” Sanders said.

The WGN Medical Watch team spoke with Sanders in 2017 after she received an infusion of the special nanoparticles. Twenty-four hours later she underwent surgery to remove her glioma and doctors looked for signs the nanoparticles made it to her tumor.

Now, four years later, the results are in. The nanoparticles not only made it to Sanders tumor, but the compound triggered the death of cancer cells. The same result occurred in all participants tested post-operatively. Sadly, none of the volunteers survived long enough to learn the promising outcome of the study.

“It makes me emotional,” Kumthekar said. “The highlight and the star of this study are the eight patients who were involved. They volunteered themselves to forward the science and their family members supported them and supported us and our work to forward cancer care and brain tumor care.”

Now the team is focused on moving the technology forward.

“Now we’re going to take this information back to the lab and try to create a compound that can now even more capitalize on this technology. And we’re hoping to take that back into clinical trials again,” Kumthekar said. “From an immediate sense, it doesn’t change how treatment will look tomorrow. But I think this is something that gives us hope for glioblastoma treatment in the near future.”

The size of the nanoparticle is exactly what allows it to cross the blood brain barrier. And the technology can be applied to other brain diseases as well.