Glioblastoma, the aggressive cancer discovered in Arizona Sen. John McCain, has long frustrated surgeons, because cancerous cells invade the surrounding brain before diagnosis is possible, making surgical removal of these tumors inefficient, according to Virginia Tech experts studying the disease.

“These tumors often cause seizures and kill surrounding brain through the release of toxic glutamate,” said Professor Harald Sontheimerwho has researched Glioblastoma over 25 years.

Sontheimer’s team developed an experimental drug that showed promising results in a phase clinical trial in over 60 patients.

Sontheimer is the I.D. Wilson Chair and professor of neuroscience, executive director of the School of Neuroscience of the Virginia Tech College of Science, and director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer. 

Sontheimer and several other Virginia Tech scientists are available to discuss the latest research efforts to eradicate the world’s deadliest form of brain cancer. About half of glioblastoma patients die within the 12 to 18 months of diagnosis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 

-- Rob Gourdiethe director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research, and Samy Lamouille, a research assistant professor at the institute. 

Gourdie and Lamouille founded a biotech company, Acomhal Research Inc., to develop treatments for cancer patients. 

Acomhal Research studies a compound that has potential to target cancer stem cells, which are the seeds from which a number of different tumors are thought to grow,” Gourdie said. “We imagine a drug that might be used for treating glioblastoma, which is a deadly type of brain tumor.” 

In addition, Gourdie said colon and other types of cancer besides brain tumors may be effectively targeted through their cancer stem cell techniques.  

 -- Zhi Sheng, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

In a study in the journal Oncotarget, the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists compared glioblastoma stem cells isolated from cells obtained from freshly dissected tumor tissues.  “Our discovery shows different patients have different types of cancer stem cells, and those cancer stem cells respond to therapies differently,” said Zhi Sheng, senior author of the paper and an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.  “If we are going to eradicate these cells and slow down an incurable form of brain cancer, it will be important to use a personalized and precision approach.”  

"It would be great for these patients if we could move the clock just a little bit and give them more time,” Sheng said. “In a dish, we already know we can kill these aggressive cancer cells and I think it is possible to help patients combat this deadly disease with these methods.” 

Schedule an interview

To secure a print or broadcast interview with Harald Sontheimer or Zhi Sheng, contact Bill Foy in the Virginia Tech Media Relations office:;  by phone at 540-231-8719 or 540-998-0288. 

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