Glioblastoma: The most aggressive of brain cancers

It grows fast, it hits hard, and when symptoms begin showing up it may already be too late.

Glioblastoma is a specific type of brain tumour, one that is the most common and most aggressive types. The Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada says around 4 in 100,000 people have the condition, making up a large percentage of brain tumours diagnosed. They come about at any age, but usually happen between the ages of 45 and 75. They tend to affect women more than men.

Symptoms are entirely dependent on where in the brain the tumour is located. The most common symptom is a headache, which is caused by an increased pressure on the brain. Weakness in the arms or legs, decreased sensation, nausea, seizures, memory decline and personality disorders. Often when symptoms begin showing up, treatment is already limited.

The most common treatment is surgery, although getting rid of the tumour this way is very difficult. For starters, the brain itself is delicate, difficult to repair, and often is damaged with conventional therapies. On top of that, drugs have difficulty getting to the brain and even when they do, the tumour cells are very resistant to conventional therapies. Further, the structure of the tumours themselves are diffuse, meaning they have tendrils that spread to other parts within the brain. This means they can come back and grow again. Studies show that surgery can stimulate the cancer cells, leading them to grow back faster than before.

It is for this reason that, even with treatment, life expectancy is around a year.

Of all the cancers, this specific type of brain cancer is subject to intense research. Here in Canada, research using AI, gene editing and new therapies have come about in the past year. As symptoms show when the disease is in advanced stages, early detection with the use of biomarkers is of particular interest to researchers. Finally, the use of ultrasound technology is a promising treatment. However, development is slow and could take decades to put into practice.

A spotlight was shone on glioblastoma when US President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, was diagnosed with the tumour in 2013. The younger Biden suffered a stroke in 2010, and three years later he was back in hospital for several surgeries. The story made public the challenges that those with the condition face. The Canadian Cancer Survivor Network encourages and implores all levels of government to continue funding research into therapies and diagnoses, and bring existing therapies to this country in a timely manner.