Brain gain

Jonathan Wren

Rheal Towner, who oversees the MRI center, and Jonathan Wren, a computer
scientist, have studied and tested genes that can serve as mapping
tools to help doctors in the removal of brain tumors and, eventually, in
sending drugs directly to the tumors.

Towner and Wren, whose mother died of brain cancer when he was 11, said they hope their work can help patients have more — and better — treatment options. Therapies for brain tumors, which can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, are drastic and can change a patient’s personality.

“You see how devastating it is,” Towner said. “They’re just never the same as they were before.”

Some patients are lucky to have 85-percent capacity afterward and often have impaired senses and problems with speech and mobility.

“The brain is a very complicated structure,” Wren said.

He has learned more about that complicated structure through a computer program he developed that predicts a function for every gene for which scientists have data. That led to 17 genes that Towner could test to determine if they occurred with brain tumors. So far, six of those tested were hits for good markers to identify tumors.

Rheal Towner

Towner tested them first in animal markers. Through a partnership with the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, the markers were tested in human tumors.

The most immediate benefit to the work of Wren and Towner is that doctors can differentiate between high- and low-level tumors, which subsequently can help determine treatment options. In addition, a fluorescent marker can be sent to the genes so that doctors can see the boundaries of the tumor.

The fluorescent marker, visible to the naked eye, is similar to the use of a highlighter pen to mark text.

This means removing less healthy brain tissue when extracting tumors and making sure all the tumor is removed for less chance of re-occurrence.“Tumors
in the brain don’t necessarily stick out in terms of the boundaries,”
Wren said. “It’s your brain we’re talking about, right? You want to keep
as much as you can.”

Scientists and doctors also can attach a contrasting agent to the genes so they can be seen by an MRI. That helps in tracking how tumors grow.

What’s next
next application of the pair’s work can be sending drugs to the markers
in the tumors to treat from inside, a process called targeted drug

“Things like
this I really love because it’s a very practical application of the
technology,” Wren said. “This would be a way to attack it from the
inside,” Wren said.

The two said they will continue to test more and search for additional genes because there is still much to learn.

both have a common goal, which is to help eliminate problems associated
with a disease,” Towner said. “You do have to have the drive to take it
through, not necessarily completed, but in the right direction.”

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Dawn Watson

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