Researchers in Toronto have breached the blood-brain barrier in a human being for the first time, potentially paving the way for improved treatments and fewer side effects for sufferers of brain tumours and neurological disorders.

The team at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center managed to non-invasively breach the blood-brain barrier – the membrane that surrounds vessels in the brain and stops harmful particles from entering – using ultrasound and microscopic bubbles, delivering chemotherapy drugs to a brain cancer patient with a high level of precision.

Dr Todd Mainprize, principal investigator of the study, said: “Some of the most exciting and novel therapeutics for the treatment of malignant brain tumours are not able to reach the tumour cells because of the blood-brain barrier. This technique will open up new opportunities to deliver potentially much more effective treatments to the targeted areas.”

The pioneering work is just one example of the world-leading research taking place in brain research within Toronto. While the city does not have one single institution that acts as a focal point for its brain science, a range of hospital and academic labs in the city are at the forefront of brain science research. Indeed, The Ontario Brain Institute was created in 2009 in part to help connect and accelerate the brain research already taking place across the city and province.

Many of the knowledge centres are linked to the University of Toronto, which, in North America, ranks second only to Harvard University in publishing studies related to neuroscience and behaviour. Sunnybrook itself is a fully affiliated teaching hospital of the University of Toronto, and the largest single-site hospital in Canada, with more than 200 scientists conducting more than $100m of research each year.

Combined, the network of brain research underway in Toronto makes the city a significant thought leader in the field. At The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute, Dr Freda Miller, a cell and molecular developmental neurobiologist and Professor at the University of Toronto, is currently tracking the brain’s construction and renewal, a process known as neurogenesis. At Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, neuroscientist Kenichi Okamoto is researching how the brain acquires information via two-photon imaging and optogenetics. Aristotle Voineskos, a neuroscientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is using ‘diffusion magnetic resonance imaging’ to chart and predict pre-existing vulnerabilities to mental illness. 

At the University Health Network – the clinical healthcare and medical research organisation behind Toronto Western Hospital, Toronto General Hospital, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – Andres Lozano is a world leader at manipulating neural circuits in the brain via deep brain stimulation. DBS has gained attention as a way of forestalling the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, as well as boosting activity in circuits that are deteriorating as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, Toronto researcher Randy McIntosh, director of the Rotman Research Institute at North York’s Baycrest Centre, leads an international project called The Virtual Brain, which he describes as “a platform that allows you to simulate the human brain using real data”. Essentially, the computer programme can be adjusted to recreate a brain disorder, then provide a way to test different approaches to treatment.

Following the Sunnybrook discovery, the patient’s tumour was removed and handed over to pathologists to study the concentrations of chemotherapy to determine how much made it through to each of the ultrasound-targeted and non-targeted areas. Scientists will test the approach on nine more human subjects to establish the feasibility, safety and preliminary efficacy of the approach. If it proves a success, then the technique could not only open up new ways to tackle brain tumours, but other disorders where the blood-brain barrier has historically precluded treatment, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other psychiatric conditions.

(via The Globe and Mail and gizmag)