Boosting the activity of a gene found in brain tumour stem cells could lead to a more effective treatment for malignant glioma, the most common form of brain tumour.

In a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, researchers set out to discover new gene targets to tackle resistant cancer stem cells thought to be behind the high relapse rates seen among patients with glioma.

By focussing the search on a class of proteins known as nuclear receptors, which interact directly with the DNA to control the activity of other genes, scientists were able to locate a protein receptor called CAR. This receptor is involved in processing toxins in the body.

Study lead Dr John Bright said that CAR was one of several proteins identified that were expressed at different levels in brain tumour stem cells compared with brain tumour cells.

“So boosting the activity of CAR using CITCO could be a potent way of selectively killing brain tumour stem cells, by kickstarting the body’s normal defences against cells dividing out of control,” Bright said.

“We found the drug was highly effective at killing brain tumour stem cells and brain tumour cells, without harming healthy cells, in mice and also in cells grown in the lab.”

Researchers believe that by understanding the action of these genes, new drugs can be pinpointed that home in on brain tumour stem cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The next step will be to carry out a more detailed analysis of these drugs to find out if they are safe and effective enough to trial in humans.