Arsenic trioxide could be powerful therapy to extend lives of certain glioblastoma patients

From Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie, arsenic is often the poison of choice in popular whodunits. But in ultra-low dosage, and in the right form, this naturally occurring chemical element can be a potent force against cancer.

Arsenic trioxide for years has been used to fend off a rare subtype of blood cancer known as acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Now, in a study led by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), this anti-cancer agent is being considered for use against glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and aggressive type of deadly brain tumors. The study was published today in Molecular Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

“Our findings show that, for some patients, arsenic trioxide could be a powerful therapy that could extend the lives of certain glioblastoma patients by as much as three to four times the median expectation,” said Dr. Harshil Dhruv, an Assistant Professor in TGen’s Cancer and Cell Biology Division and one of the study’s authors.

Median survival of glioblastoma patients is only 15 months, and survival statistics have improved only minimally over the past three decades. An estimated 17,000 Americans will die this year of brain and other nervous system cancers.

The origin of this new study had all the serendipitous turns of a good mystery novel.

TGen had recently identified arsenic trioxide among a library of 650 compounds that could potentially be used against different subtypes of glioblastoma. While Dr. Dhruv was presenting these findings at a scientific conference, he met Dr. Jonathan Bell, who at the time was a graduate student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at Northwestern University. He described his work, showing resistance of a specific subtype of GBM against arsenic trioxide. In two clinical studies they examined, the therapeutic effects of arsenic…

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