Rare Earths Role in Fighting the Deadliest of Cancers


"Rare earths play a big role in both the imaging and treatment side of things."

DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) is a rare form of cancer (~200 children are diagnosed with the disease each year), which sits in the brain stem, or "pons" region of the brain. Essentially every major function within the human body (except smell) must pass through the pons (e.g., consciousness, sight, ability to swallow, etc). The trouble with DIPG is that it is inoperable and, for the most part, untreatable. The diagnosis remains grim. Approximately 90% of children diagnosed with the disease do not live longer than 18 months.

I was shocked to discover that basic treatments for DIPG have not changed in 30 years. Steroids are used to reduce swelling, typically followed by radiation. Although radiation has been helpful in reducing the tumor's size, it typically provides a 3 - 9 month respite before the tumor comes raging back, killing the patient.

In researching the disease, I learned that it is difficult to gather tissue samples. At this time, tissue can only be obtained by autopsy donation (best if gathered within 6 hours of the time of death).

Rare earths play a big role in both the imaging and treatment side of things. Because DIPGs are inoperable and typically not biopsied because of the risk involved, they are both difficult to see and difficult to treat.

The leading expert in this field is Dr. Kathy Warren whom some believe sees 20%-30% of all children diagnosed with DIPG. Unlike other tumors that are responsive to oral or intravenous chemotherapies, the blood-brain barrier limits the efficacy of these delivery methods for DIPG. The NIH, however, leads a new area of research using rare earth metal gadolinium to aid in what is called CED (Convection Enhanced Delivery) or actual drug therapy delivered directly to the tumor.

The gadolinium compounds with the chemotherapeutic agent. At that point, researchers start the infusion and use MR imaging to ensure the drug is delivered in a very precise manner. By imaging this process, researchers can closely track drug delivery, view safety implications to determine drug efficacy and perhaps most important in DIPG cases—make sure the drug is delivered to the actual tumor site.

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