Developing brain cancer might be linked to head traumas

March 21, 2023 | Histopathology

Evidence regarding the molecular association between head injuries and increased risk for brain tumors have been lacking and undetermined.

A research team, led by Prof. Simona Parrinello of the Cancer Institute from the University College London (UCL), discovered a possible mechanism that could explain the contribution of head traumas to the development of glioma, a rare but often aggressive form of brain tumor. This mechanism included genetic mutations that co-occur during brain tissue inflammation. This causes a change in behavior of cells, increasing their likelihood to become cancerous. Even though the study was largely done on mice, its implications exhibit relevance to human gliomas. 

Gliomas usually originate from neural stem cells. According to recent findings, the more mature type of brain cells called astrocytes - which were considered less likely to give rise to tumors - showed stem cell behavior. Using the preclinical mouse model, the researchers investigated how an injury can cause astrocytes to change behavior.

A substance which labeled astrocytes in red and disabled the function of the gene called p53, known to have a role in suppressing different types of cancers, was injected to young adult mice with brain injury. A control group had their p53 gene intact while another group was subjected to p53 inactivation in the absence of injury. 

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They discovered that without p53 and as a consequence of injury, the astrocytes had become rounded as they retracted their branches. Letting the mice age, the researchers further examined the cells and saw that they had transformed to a stem-like state, markings of early glioma cells that could divide. This meant that certain cells synergised with brain inflammation induced by acute injury which increases over time during the process of aging, making astrocytes more likely to increase the risk for cancer.

In supporting their hypothesis on human populations, they worked closely with Dr. Alvina Lai of the UCL’s Institute of Health Informatics. Over 20,000 electronic medical records of people who had been diagnosed with head injuries were reviewed. Rates of brain cancer were later compared with a control group, with all other demographic variables matched. As contrasted to those who had not incurred brain injury, patients who experienced were four times more likely to develop brain cancer on a later onset. 

Fortuitously, the overall risk of developing glioma is low even after an injury, estimated at less than 1% of the population over a lifetime. 

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