Kevin Petrecca, MD, PhD, FRCS(C)

William Feindel Chair in Neuro-Oncology, Montreal Neurological Institute; Chief of the Department of Neurosurgery-McGill University Health Centre; Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University
Researcher of the month: 
May 2017

A New Hope for Brain Cancer Patients

Fighting brain cancer has long been one of medicine’s biggest challenges.  The most common type of primary brain cancer, Glioblastoma, is the most aggressive of these.

Surgical reduction of the cancer prior to radiotherapy and chemotherapy significantly delays the recurrence of Glioblastoma and extends survival time for patients. A new cancer-detection method developed by Dr. Kevin Petrecca, Chief of Neurosurgery and brain cancer researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro), is stirring hope for patients diagnosed with such invasive brain cancers.

Dr. Petrecca has created a powerful new intraoperative probe for detecting cancer cells. The hand-held Raman spectroscopy probe enables surgeons, for the first time, to accurately detect virtually all invasive brain cancer cells in real time during surgery. The probe is superior to existing technology and could set a new standard for successful brain cancer surgery.

“It’s often impossible to visually distinguish cancer from normal brain, so invasive brain cancer cells frequently remain after surgery, leading to cancer recurrence and a worse prognosis,” says Dr. Petrecca, who is the William Feindel Chair in Neuro-Oncology at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. “Surgically minimizing the number of cancer cells improves patient outcomes.”

Designed and developed in partnership with Dr. Frédéric Leblond, Professor in Engineering Physics at Polytechnique Montréal, the probe technique uses laser technology to measure light scattered from molecules within the cancer.

The Raman probe was tested on patients with grade 2, 3 and 4 gliomas, which are highly invasive brain cancers. “We showed that the probe is equally capable of detecting invasive cancer cells from all grades of invasive gliomas,” says Dr. Petrecca. “There is strong evidence that the extent of tumour removal affects prognosis for all grades of invasive gliomas.”

“I have no doubts this innovation will be transformational," he adds.

A Battle on Many Fronts

Dr. Petrecca and his team at the Neuro team have been working on combating the insidious nature of cancer growth on several fronts. In addition to his sophisticated surgical techniques, he is advancing research to disable tumour growth at the genetic level.

Six years of testing and research have led to a precise gene therapy approach that he describes as “a switch that prevents brain cancer cells from spreading.” Dr. Petrecca and his team artificially engineered a molecular agent and introduced it first into cancer cell culture models and then into pre-clinical models. In both cases cancer cell movement was stopped.“One approach to stop the spread of brain cancer cells is to inhibit the expression of certain genes,” says Dr. Petrecca who, along with his colleagues, is moving towards bringing this therapy into a clinical trial.  “The next step is implementing an infusion-based system in which the agent is infused directly into the brain tumour,” adds Dr. Petrecca. “This method can be used to treat many types of brain cancers.”

Hope on the Horizon

Dr. Petrecca’s work to develop novel therapeutics to prevent brain cancer invasion earned his team a $170,500 Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society in April 2014. This project focuses on the study of the genetics involved in the spread of glioblastoma. He has found that the DRR gene is an important driver of cancer spread and is now developing a gene-silencing treatment to block DRR expression and is testing its effectiveness in a preclinical mouse model.

Using such innovative technology along with standard radiation treatment and chemotherapy, Dr. Petrecca’s multi-faceted approach to dealing with brain cancers is giving patients new hope for life.