Neuroscience Lab

Annie Schmidt (LEFT) and Will Klockner (RIGHT) prepare a worm for testing its conduction velocity in their Introduction to Neuroscience lab, Oct. 29, 2018. 

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) are working to develop cutting-edge solutions to a serious form of brain cancer.

The research team, led by Zhi Sheng, assistant professor for the institute, is studying the effects of gene therapy on the incurable and deadly glioblastoma variety of brain cancer.

According to Sheng, glioblastoma is hard to treat for several reasons. The first reason is that by the time the patient has been diagnosed with the cancer, it is too late to stop it from severely damaging the brain.

The second reason is that there are no clear boundaries to the tumor. Even if surgeons can remove the tumorous area, any remaining or missed tissue will become cancerous in a very short time.

The final reason, and perhaps the most important, is the age of the patients. Most patients who suffer from this disease are elderly, making the healing process difficult and increasing the risk of injury or death in surgery. According to Sheng, these factors are the reasons why the average survival time after diagnosis is only around 14.6 months.

To combat this abysmal survival time, Sheng and his team are working on methods of blocking various genes that either cause the cancer or help spread it, using a special method of genetic manipulation known as RNA interference.

This technology creates strands of ribonucleic acids (RNA), which are various proteins bound together in a string. These RNA strands can bind to certain parts of a person’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) to prevent the instructions on those parts of the DNA from being read. This causes certain proteins produced by the body to degrade, which in this case cause cancer. Without these proteins the cancer stops spreading and in some cases dies.

This team is currently looking at two different genes to determine a viable treatment. The first target gene is the Casein Kinase 1 Epsilon (CKIE) gene, which controls sleep cycles in the brain. This gene is unusually high in patients with glioblastoma. The team theorizes that these two factors are connected and that hindering CKIE production will also stop the spread of the cancer.

The second target is PIK3CB, which is known as a “cancer gene” that causes regrowth of cancer that has been removed. However, the exact role of this gene in glioblastoma is unknown. Despite this uncertainty, treatment of this gene has proven to be one of the most successful methods of stopping the disease.

Virginia Tech students from various colleges, including three undergraduates and six medical students, work in the lab helping with cell cultures and other tasks. The lab even has a high school student doing research with the team.

The team has not yet been able to move from small animal trials to larger animals or humans, but the researchers are hopeful.

“We are trying different animal models,” Sheng said, “and soon we will move on to working with the Virginia–Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine on animal tests.”

The test subjects will be composed of those who already suffer from the disease, so no animal will be subjected to cancer causing agents.

VTCRI is also constructing a new building to house more researchers and experiments, many of which will assist and help continue the work of Sheng and his team.

“With this research, we hope to give more time and hope to patients,” Sheng said.


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