Yale researchers have discovered a molecule that speeds the growth and spread of a form of brain cancer that afflicts some 20,000 Americans annually and proves lethal in half of the cases within 18 months. Glioma, as the form of cancerous brain tumors is termed, is particularly resistant to standard treatments such as surgery because its cells zoom through normal brain tissue to other sites where new tumors can grow rapidly. According to a study directed by neurobiologist Susan Hockfield, Ph.D., gliomas move through healthy brain tissue with the help of a tumor-specific protein, which acts like a set of wheels on the cancer cells. The researchers hope that a therapy that blocks the function of the protein molecule, called brain-enriched hyaluronan binding protein (BEHAB), or reduces a tumor cell's ability to generate it, may slow tumor progression.

Dr. Hockfeld's study, which was published in the April 1 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, provides the first clear understanding of how glioma cells invade healthy brain tissue. The work also resulted in a new animal model for the disease that can be used to evaluate future therapies. “One approach to controlling the cancer,” says Dr. Hockfield, the new dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, “would be to block the glioma cells' ability to travel, without harming healthy cells.” She notes that BEHAB may prove a prime candidate for this type of therapy because it exists in glioma tumors but not in other kinds of brain tumors or tissue in the body.