Blood Brain Barrier

The blood-brain barrier, a shield of tightly packed cells, protects your brain from harmful toxins and other substances.

Every day, you use your brain to accomplish many tasks. You work, drive a car, talk on the phone, and write e-mails and text messages. You probably don’t think about the shield of tightly packed cells, known as the blood-brain barrier, which is protecting your brain from harmful toxins and other substances.

The blood-brain barrier plays a critical role in your health. So, why would teams of researchers and physicians want to break through it?  Because, for people who are fighting cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other serious neurologic diseases, this barrier prevents them from benefiting from many treatments designed to improve and extend their lives.

“The blood-brain barrier represents a significant challenge for many scientists and physicians, including neurologists, oncologists, and other specialists,” said Dr. Martin Samuels, Chairman of the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “Years have been spent dedicated to researching medications that will pass through the barrier to help treat life-threatening diseases.”

Experts at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center have been at the forefront of discovery of new cancer medications that cross the blood-brain barrier and target primary brain tumors and other cancers that tend to spread to the brain. Dr. Patrick Wen, Chief of the Division of Cancer Neurology in the BWH Department of Neurology and Director of the Center for Neuro-Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, and his team are leading clinical trials of new drugs that easily cross the blood-brain barrier for the treatment of patients with glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain tumor. Dr. Eric Winer, Director of the Breast Oncology Center, and his team found that certain types of breast cancer tend to spread to the brain, even after initial successful treatment. The finding led to studies of drugs that cross the blood-brain barrier, used in combination with standard cancer medications for women with these breast cancers.

In addition, specialists and researchers at BWH are evaluating various mechanisms that help drugs cross the blood-brain barrier or deliver drugs directly to specific areas of the brain. Low levels of focused ultrasound treatment are used to functionally open the blood-brain barrier to enable more effective doses of chemotherapy and immunotherapy to be delivered to brain tumors and other neurologic diseases. Dr. Jeffrey Karp, Co-Director of the BWH Biomedical Research Institute Regenerative Therapeutics Center, is working with Dr. Lata Menon and Dr. Praveen Kumar Vemula in a new approach using drug-based gels that simultaneously deliver tumor cell sensitizers and chemotherapy drugs. The gel, which is injected directly into the tumor site, can also be designed to remain stable for months in healthy brain tissue and release drugs selectively in response to tumor growth or recurrence. “As a team, we continue our quest to look for new ways to cross the blood-brain barrier and treat diseases of the brain using innovative approaches,” said Dr. Samuels.

– Jessica F

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