What happens in glioblastoma, exactly?

What is it?

Glioblastoma is a very aggressive type of brain cancer. The symptoms often get worse quickly, and they can include things like headache, personality changes, and nausea.

About 15% of brain tumors are glioblastomas. Unfortunately it is very hard to treat, and the average length of survival after diagnosis is only 12-15 months with 3%-5% of people living longer than 5 years. About 3 in 100 000 people develop the disease every year.

What causes it?

For some reason glioblastoma is more common in men. The risk of having it is also linked to having been infected with certain types of viruses and perhaps also to drinking lots of alcohol.

What happens during it?

Cancers like glioblastoma essentially happen when cells start to divide uncontrollably. These clusters of abnormal cells then start to disturb the normal functions of the body and steal nutrients. This uncontrolled cell division can take place if the DNA, the code that tells the cell what to do, becomes mutated in unfortunate areas like those that control cell division or those that control the cell’s ability to respond to messages from elsewhere in the body.

Many different mutations are common in glioblastoma, although they can vary from patient to patient because of the different subtypes of the disease. For example, there is a receptor whose activation leads normally to cell division, and a mutation often seen in glioblastoma leads to this receptor being activated all the time. This makes the cell always think it is supposed to divide, even when it in fact is not.

Glioblastoma usually causes both general symptoms that are related to the fact that there is a tumor in the brain, and specific symptoms that are related to the specific brain parts that the tumor harms. One of the more general symptoms is headache. This is caused by too much pressure inside the skull – the rigid skull doesn’t expand but the matter inside it increases. This happens because the quickly growing tumor takes up space and tumors can also cause fluid to accumulate in the brain. Other common symptoms mainly caused by pressure include nausea, seizures and tiredness.

The specific symptoms of glioblastoma can vary a lot because it can be found all around the brain. The tumors are often found in the frontal parts of our brain that are responsible for higher cognitive functions which is why things like memory loss and small personality changes are quite frequent. Muscle weakness and problems with language are, however, also fairly common.

Glioblastoma spreads very rapidly around the brain, and people suffering from it usually die when the cancer reaches areas that are vital for survival.

How can it be treated?

Glioblastoma tumors aren’t very responsive to normal cancer treatments, which is why medicine often manages, at best, to buy the patient a few months or so of extra time and a better quality of life for the time they have left.

The tumor can be removed with surgery, but since there are always some cancer cells left inside the brain, this will “only” buy time and relieve symptoms before the tumor grows back. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can also be useful in suppressing the tumor for some amount of time.

People with glioblastoma suffer from seizures quite often and these can be prevented with medications. The pressure inside the skull can also be lowered, which helps with the headache and tiredness.




Sources: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glioblastoma, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidermal_growth_factor_receptor, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC33993/, https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/cancerwise/2013/04/understanding-glioblastoma.html, http://www.abta.org/brain-tumor-information/symptoms/headaches.html?referrer=https://www.google.fi/, http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/brain-tumour/about/brain-tumour-symptoms#why



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