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High-profile Glioblastoma deaths may be no coincidence

The head of neurosurgery at University of Minnesota Medical School says research indicates a link between high brain function and tumor growth.

When Senator John McCain lost his battle with Glioblastoma, it wasn't the first time many had heard of the aggressive form of brain cancer.

McCain died nine years to the day after Glioblastoma killed former Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. The cancer also claimed the life of Beau Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden and attorney Johnnie Cochran.

Though the cancer is statistically rare, more and more experts believe these high profile cases are more than coincidence.

"I don't believe that the affliction of this disease, to these leaders, is an accident," said Dr. Clark Chen, the head of the Neurosurgery Department at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "In fact, the work that we've done in our laboratory have revealed a very interesting link, which is that the same neurotransmitters that allows you to understand what I'm saying right now, the same neurotransmitters that allows you to think, are the same factors that allow tumors to grow."

Dr. Chen says that research is backed up by several other studies from around the world that point to an increased prevalence of the disease (up to twice as likely) among people who are highly educated or have high cognitive function.

"This is a disease that will disproportionately affect the educated and those who frequently use their mind," Dr. Chen said.

Dr. Chen says that link between tumor growth and brain activity helps explain why traditional cancer treatment like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are often not effective with Glioblastoma.

But he says the knowledge is helping research teams approach the disease differently and leading to promising advancements.

"We are now working on ways to re-educate our immune system so that they can fight off the cancerous cells through using viruses that's injected directly into the brain at the time of surgery," Dr. Chen said.

Though it's still too early to know how effective the strategies will be, Dr. Chen says they keep working with the memory of Senator McCain and many others motivating their work.

"We have not given up," Dr. Chen said. "We have made significant strides and will continue to make those strides, so that, within my lifetime, we would like to change the course of the disease."

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