Cancer, in its many different forms, has been the subject of much medical research and investigation for several decades. Many different approaches have been taken to target the problems caused by them, and while some have been more effective than others, researchers have yet to find a solution that can eliminate a patient’s cancer in its entirety. Time after time, it has been apparent that the majority of cancer treatments have only led to a temporary disappearance of the tumor before it resurfaces and spreads again. This is often due to the nature of the tumor itself; malignant tumors spread at a very fast rate and are extremely harmful to all organ systems, not just the one that it is directly affecting. A lack of acknowledgement or failure to seek treatment by patients can also lead to undesirable outcomes. Not detecting a cancer early on can cause it to attack its host on a much larger scale, before potentially spreading to other organ systems and becoming much more fatal. Consequently, if not detected early, a cancer can reach levels where it is too powerful and developed to be treated, and can hence reduce a patient’s life by years or even decades.
Many physicians and researchers have taken to using different laboratory techniques to determine a lasting cure for cancer. Cancer comes in many different forms, and can attack organ systems in a variety of different ways. Many steps have been taken to make the public more aware of the causes and symptoms of cancers, with the goal of informing the general population to more easily identify their early symptoms. At the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, a research laboratory aims to achieve all of these goals by creating a treatment for brain cancer that involves tracing the path the tumor has taken.
Led by Dr. Gregory Riggins, a professor of Neurosurgery and Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, the Brain Surgery and Oncology Laboratory has a unique and potentially effective approach to the issue at hand. The laboratory focuses on brain cancer and how to target its genetic source in individuals. Riggins’ laboratory focuses on two kinds of malignant brain tumors: medulloblastomas, which are more prevalent in children, and glioblastomas, which occur primarily in adults. In general, the laboratory focuses on approaches that can counter tumor mutations by tracing the path that a tumor takes before it can obtain mutations that can potentially increase its impact on the body. Doing this can allow for a localization of where a mutation forms, and can potentially inhibit a mutation from allowing the cancer to spread and becoming more fatal.
Dr. Riggins is very dedicated to his research and feels that focusing on improving a patient’s survival and quality of life is an extremely important aspect in finding a proper treatment.
Although the laboratory was founded with a focus on brain cancer, Riggins’ laboratory has over time taken an interdisciplinary approach, tailoring its research to take other cancers into account as well. Riggins stated that the purpose of expanding his laboratory’s scope of research was because “the biggest impact [in the world of clinical medicine] will possibly be on improvements on early stage cancer therapy and prevention”. The laboratory also aims to find ways to delay or eradicate tumors in patients who have a known genetic risk for cancer.
His research laboratory has had many successes in finding ways to slow down fast cancers before they spread and eventually become more dangerous. One of the most monumental moments of his cancer research was in 2009, when he and his colleagues were injecting glioblastoma cells into mice in order to test a possible treatment. During these trials, a group of mice appeared to be resistant to the cells, and it was apparent that no tumors would grow. This somewhat accidental observation turned out to be due to the fact that these mice had been exposed to a drug called fenbendazole, which is an anthelmintic that is primarily used to prevent the spawn of gastrointestinal parasites in animals. They also found that, mebendazole, the human counterpart to this drug, also had a similar effect of inhibiting cancer growth. Although this was not found to completely make a host resistant to tumors and cancer, it was definitely a large discovery made that could be useful in slowing them down and increase a patient’s time of survival.
Currently, there are three clinical trials that are going on to test these drugs, with the goal of coming up with a potential treatment that is safe to take and is accessible to the general population. These clinical trials, according to Riggins, are made possible by three groups of people: the researchers who isolate the drug necessary for treatment, the nurses and doctors who carry out these experiments surgically, and the patients who volunteer to take this treatment – a very risky task since these drugs are still in the process of development and have little to no known success in humans.
Aside from this main project, Riggins’ laboratory has also been working on projects involving treatments of other neurologic tumors. Other investigations they have been involved in include the development of immunotherapeutic treatments for meningioma and the discovery of cancer biomarkers for cholangiocarcinoma.
Riggins’ approaches to his research are more than just general and technical scientific knowledge. Among science, he stated that hard work, team effort, and luck are some of the most important factors in conducting a successful investigation. Rather, it can be gathered that patience is a very important virtue in conducting successful research, as a solution will never come up the first time around. Successful scientific research may take many weeks, months, or even years of testing and trials. One may even stumble upon discoveries by accident, which demonstrates the spontaneous and diverse nature of scientific investigation.
When Riggins was asked for any comments or messages he would like to give to the general public, he left a very simple but powerful message: “don’t smoke, don’t eat processed meats and wear sunscreen to reduce your risk of cancer, because cancer sucks.”
More information about the Brain Surgery and Oncology Laboratory can be found at the lab’s website. Information about Dr. Gregory Riggins, including his role at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus and research articles can be found here.