A pair of molecules that drive the growth of an aggressive form of brain cancer might hold the key to new therapy options for the deadly disease.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have discovered that the molecules could reveal the mechanisms that underpin brain cancer progression, while also shedding light on possible targets for the development of new therapies to help patients.

The research team was able to identify FOXG1 and SOX2 as the two molecules that are produced at high levels by the cells in patients with glioblastoma—a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer with few options for treatment, where only one in five sufferers survive more than one year after diagnosis.

“Brain cancer cells seem to be hijacking important cell machinery that is used by normal brain stem cells,” Steve Pollard, Ph.D., CRUK Senior Cancer Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, said in a statement. “The tactic they appear to use is to produce high levels of these key regulators.

“This locks the tumor cells into perpetual cycles of growth and stops them listening to the signals that normally control cell specialization,” he added.

Previous research has revealed that glioblastoma cells are similar to normal brain stem cells, which give rise to the many different cell types in the brain during development.

According to the researchers, SOX2 drives glioblastoma cells to keep dividing, which often leads to cancer. They also found that FOXG1 stops the cells from responding to other signals that usually point them towards becoming specialized.

Also, both molecules work by controlling when target genes are turned on and off by the cell, which led to the researcher further examining which genes were affected, while identifying several factors that are involved in controlling cell division.

“While survival for many types of cancer have improved dramatically, tackling brain tumors remains a challenge and we urgently need to develop new, kinder treatments,” Aine McCarthy, Ph.D., Cancer Research UK’s Senior Science Information Officer, said in a statement. “This research provides an exciting new insight into how two specific molecules might play a key role in driving the growth of glioblastoma tumors, the most common type of brain tumor.

“The next step will be for scientists to see if they can develop a way to stop glioblastoma cells from using these molecules as a way to survive and then to test it in clinical trials to see whether this affects tumor growth in people,” she added.

The study was published in Genes & Development.