Brain tumours or gliomas, if cancerous, can be a killer. Finding out whether the tumour is cancerous or not is difficult unless it is removed and sent for biopsy.

And early detection is crucial since timely treatment can save lives.

The medical fraternity, which has been trying to find out if there are any biomarkers for gliomas, has met with some success.

A research team at the Centre for Biosystems Science and Engineering (BSSE) and Mazumdar Shaw Medical Foundation has identified two blood-based biomarkers for detecting gliomas.

Sidharth Jhunjhunwala, Assistant Professor at BSSE and a senior member of the study, told Quantum that the team analysed blood samples from individuals with gliomas and identified two surface proteins on immune cells in the blood; there was a high correlation between the levels of the proteins in the blood and the progression of the tumour.

There are four stages of a brain tumour — non-cancerous; non-cancerous but slow-growing; cancerous and slow-growing; and cancerous and fast-spreading. Grades 3 and 4 are the problem. The blood-based biomarkers can hint at the presence of these grades, alerting the clinician to take up an appropriate line of treatment.

The team collected samples of tumour and blood from patients with grade 3 and 4 gliomas and compared the number of immune cells, called monocytes and neutrophils.

Examining the composition of surface proteins in these tumours, they found that one type of monocyte, called M2, was present in higher quantities. They knew from earlier studies that a high level of M2 monocyte means suppression of immune responses.

The researchers also found that two surface proteins on neutrophils and monocytes (CD86 and CD63) were present in large numbers in both blood and tumour samples. The presence of hordes of these proteins on the immune cells is generally a harbinger of death.

Says Jhunjhunwala: “You do not need to look at these markers only in the tumours, you might be able to look at these just from the blood, and the clinician can make an assessment.”

An article in IISc’s house magazine Kernel says that the two institutions involved in the research — BSSE and Mazumdar Shaw Foundation — had specific and different roles.

The samples had to be preserved and processed well, which was handled by Mazumdar Shaw Foundation; the characterisation and immuno-staining was done at BSSE.

Caution

Jhunjhunwala emphasised that these were just preliminary findings and more studies were needed to arrive at definitive conclusions.

Besides, the biomarkers in the blood as yet do not mean an early warning system; just an alternative to what a biopsy of the tumour might reveal. With further work, it is possible to find biomarkers that could provide advance indications of an impending doom, but that is for the future.

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