Neurosurgeons using lasers to treat brain cancer have discovered the technique breaks down the blood-brain barrier, a finding that could potentially lead to new treatment options for the deadly disease. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: Kathy Smith has been fighting cancer for the past 7 years. In 2009, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer followed by multiple tumors forming in her brain. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KATHY SMITH, CANCER PATIENT, SAYING: "There were, I believe, three tumors at that time and I was not at all happy about those critters." Surgery and radiation treatments were successful, but every time a tumor was removed or killed another one started forming. Kathy was advised that she was eligible to participate in a clinical trial led by Dr. Eric Leuthardt of Washington University in St. Louis. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KATHY SMITH, CANCER PATIENT, SAYING: "Kind of makes you smile when they say you are a good candidate for something new. So I got worked into that study and it did work out beautifully." Kathy underwent a procedure where a small laser tipped probe is inserted into the brain that heats up and kills tumors from the inside out. On its own, the procedure extends the lives of brain cancer patients, says Leuthardt, but an accidental discovery had even broader implications. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ERIC LEUTHARDT, PROFESSOR OF NEUROSURGERY AND BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We were able to show that this blood-brain barrier is broken down for about 4 weeks after you do this laser therapy. So not only are you killing the tumor, you are actually opening up a window of opportunity to deliver various drugs and chemicals and therapies that could otherwise not get there." After killing the tumor, Leuthardt dosed Kathy and her fellow trial participants with Daxorubicin, a powerful chemotherapy drug known as one of the least likely to get through the blood-brain barrier. The hope is to prove that laser therapy, coupled with drugs that normally wouldn't be effective because of the blood-brain barrier, could improve outcomes for brain cancer patients. The trial is still ongoing but Leuthardt says the initial results are promising. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ERIC LEUTHARDT, PROFESSOR OF NEUROSURGERY AND BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What's interesting is that the blood-brain barrier is a two way street. By breaking it down you can get things into the brain, but also by breaking it down now that things can go from your brain out into your circulation, to your peripheral system which includes your immune system." And that, says Leuthardt, potentially opens up more treatment options in the future. Kathy Smith is still battling cancer. But she says every day leads to new discoveries and new hope.