Feinstein researchers eye brain-tumor breakthrough

Brains of the operation: Feinstein Institute researchers may be closing in on a superior brain-tumor treatment.

A common medication used to treat parasitic infections could leapfrog to the top of medical science’s brain-cancer arsenal.

Pure scientific research funded by federal grants has led to this potential oncological breakthrough by the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the research-and-development division of the Northwell Health system. Marc Symons, a professor in the Feinstein Institute’s Karches Center for Oncology Research, is exploring the use of mebendazole – a medication commonly used to treat pinworms – in the fight against brain cancer.

The pinworm – species Enterobius vermicularis, for those keeping score – is a parasitic worm sometimes incorrectly referred to as an “intestinal worn” (the organisms don’t always reside in the intestines). The relatively large multicell creatures, which are generally big enough to be seen with the naked eye, live inside and feed off of living hosts, usually disrupting the host’s nutrient absorption and causing various complications.

According to a research effort spearheaded by Symons, mebendazole stands toe-to-toe with highly toxic medications currently used to treat brain tumors – and may even provide benefits not found in those other treatments.

Current brain-tumor treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. While chemotherapy is a common anti-cancer weapon, brain-tumor chemotherapy presents several specific challenges, primarily due to the blood-brain barrier, a natural defense mechanism that prevents foreign substances in the bloodstream from entering the brain.

For example, vincristine – a highly toxic drug routinely used in brain-tumor cocktails – does a poor job of crossing the blood-brain barrier, severely limiting its effectiveness.

Symons and his team focused on mebendazole, which in previous studies had been found to kill isolated glioma tumor cells in laboratory conditions. Low-grade glioma is one of the most common brain tumors.

In further laboratory tests, the Feinstein Institute researchers affirmed that mebendazole functioned similarly to vincristine without the toxicity or blood-brain barrier difficulties – and also effectively slowed the growth of glioma tumors, something vincristine doesn’t do.

Marc Symons: This side of parasite.

“We were rather surprised to see that vincristine, which is currently used to treat a range of different brain tumors, was totally ineffective in our in vivo glioma model,” Symons noted. “In contrast, in the same model, mebendazole performed quite well, most likely because mebendazole crosses the blood-brain barrier and reaches the tumor much better than vincristine.”

In addition to verifying the efficacy of mebendazole as a glioma-tumor terminator, Symons’ team may have also come up with an explanation of why vincristine is mistakenly viewed as a viable brain-cancer medication.

“Vincristine may be erroneously believed to be effective for the treatment of brain tumors [because] it always has been used in combination with other treatments,” the doctor noted.

The team’s findings are thoroughly recounted in a recent paper published by the Feinstein Institute Press’s peer-reviewed, open-access journal Molecular Medicine.

Based on those findings, Symons et al are “strongly motivated” to initiate clinical trials and determine if mebendazole can truly replace vincristine in those brain-tumor cocktails, according to the Feinstein Institute.

Even the mere consideration of such advances highlights the importance and potential of laboratory-based science, noted renowned bioelectronic medicine researcher Kevin Tracey, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute.

“Sometimes innovation can be looking at an existing treatment in a new light,” Tracey said in a statement. “This new approach needs to be tested in clinical trials, but with Dr. Symons’ new findings, we may be closer to a new treatment option that could prolong the lives of the patients suffering from low-grade glioma and other brain tumors.”