Detailed analysis of two brain tumor subtypes has revealed that they may originate from the same type of neural progenitor cells and be distinguished by gene mutation patterns and by the composition of their microenvironments. The results of a study led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard are being published in the March 31 issue of Science.

“Our study redefines the cellular composition of two closely related gliomas characterized by mutations in the IDH gene — astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas,” says Mario Suvà, MD, PhD, of the MGH Department of Pathology and the Center for Cancer Research, co-senior author of the Science paper. “While we know these are genetically distinct tumor types, we did not know whether they had similar cells of origin or if their expression differences could be explained by genetics, by the cells from which they developed, or by the tumor microenvironment.”

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Dr. Stegall’s Comments: Several types of brain cancer are especially aggressive, and two of these are astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas. These two types of brain cancer have long been assumed to develop from a different type of cell, but this research shows that this might not be true. By better identifying their origin, we can possibly develop better treatments for these aggressive cancers. However, as I always caution, we cannot let ourselves become distracted by the genetics of cancer, because cancer genetics are typically the symptom rather than the cause.