Patients with glioblastoma, a devastating brain cancer, receive treatment that frequently leads to the unfortunate side effect of low white blood cell counts that lasts six months to a year. The low numbers of white blood cells are associated with shorter survival — but the specific reason for the prolonged drop in white blood cells and the link with shorter survival has vexed scientists.
A new study led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reveals at least one cause of low white blood cell counts in patients treated for glioblastoma and demonstrates a potential treatment strategy that improves survival in mice.
The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Patients with this cancer typically do not survive longer than 18 months. The standard treatment is radiation and chemotherapy, after which many patients develop severely low numbers of lymphocytes — a type of white blood cell — in the bloodstream. The cause of these low lymphocyte counts has been something of a mystery because the therapy does not target the bone marrow, where these cells originate, and not all patients experience the problem.
“We know patients who develop low lymphocyte counts do worse than average,” said co-corresponding author Jiayi Huang, MD, an associate professor of radiation oncology and co-clinical director of the Brain Tumor Center at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. “To improve their outcomes and extend their lives, we needed to understand what is causing these low levels of white blood cells and how it contributes to worse survival.”
Huang and his colleagues at Siteman led a study that collected and analyzed blood samples from glioblastoma patients. About half of the patients developed low white blood cell counts following treatment.