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Drug allows surgeons to better see brain tumors

Posted on: 02/19/2010

Drug allows surgeons to better see brain tumors


About the writer

Luis Fabregas is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staff writer and can be reached at 412-320-7998 or via e-mail.

A drug that illuminates brain tumor cells is allowing surgeons to better remove hard-to-visualize tumors, and could become standard treatment within five years, Allegheny General Hospital surgeons said Thursday.

The North Side hospital is one of four medical centers in the United States studying the compound known as 5-aminolevulinic acid, or ALA. Patients in Germany who received it survived an additional four months, said Dr. Matthew R. Quigley, director of neuro-oncology at AGH.

"I wouldn't want to go back to doing surgery without this drug," Quigley said.

The drug has been used in the brain surgeries of 12 AGH patients enrolled in a clinical trial approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It worked in about half the cases, all of which involved patients with high-grade gliomas, common brain tumors that are notoriously difficult to take out.

Enzymes in those malignant tumors allow the drug to give off a red glow when illuminated by a blue light, Quigley said. That allows surgeons to remove as much tumor as possible.

AGH has received approval to use the drug on 50 patients. The hospital typically sees 60 to 70 patients who are newly diagnosed with gliomas, the type of tumor that afflicted the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

John Rotella, 73, of Bridgeville received the treatment on Jan. 5, four days after being diagnosed with a glioma. Doctors told him they removed the majority of the golf ball-sized tumor, something he hopes will improve his survival odds.

"I still need some chemo and radiation, but I feel absolutely great," he said.

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