New drug makes brain tumours glow in dark

Use of GlIOLAN in brain surgery has almost doubled survival rates at six months

A new drug which ‘lights up’ malignant brain tumours to help surgeons more thoroughly identify the cancer tissue will be widely available to New Zealand patients from 1 June.

The drug, GLIOLAN, assists neurosurgeons to more completely remove malignant brain tumours (gliomas) by causing them to become fluorescent during surgery.

The distributers expect around 100 New Zealand brain cancer patients a year will be operated on using this cutting-edge technology, which has been demonstrated to improve complete removal rates and almost double six-month progression free survival in patients with the most serious form of brain tumours.

It will be made available to newly diagnosed, untreated patients who are eligible for fluorescence-guided surgery and funded by Pharmac.

Leading New Zealand neurosurgeon Kelvin Woon was behind the application for Pharmac to fund the drug.

Dr Woon says the decision to add it to the hospital medicines list is “a big step forward”.

“This is a great opportunity for NZ patients who are affected by these highly malignant tumours,” he says.

“Although not curative, GLIOLAN helps us to better visualise what can be poorly-defined tumour margins, which limits our ability to resect the tumour macroscopically.

“Because we can more clearly see what is brain tissue and what is tumour, it gives us the confidence to be more aggressive and strive for maximum resection. This is important, because the evidence points to maximum (complete macroscopic) resection and increases the chances of overall survival.”

GLIOLAN is given to patients as a drink prior to surgery and taken up by the malignant tumour tissue.

During surgery, a neurosurgical microscope fitted with a specialised blue operating light is used, which causes cancerous tissue containing the drug to glow fluorescent pink whilst normal brain tissue appears blue. This enables neurosurgeons to better visualise these tumours and more completely remove them, whilst sparing the neighbouring healthy brain tissue.

The drug is made available in New Zealand by international biopharmaceutical company Specialised Therapeutics Ltd, an affiliate of Specialised Therapeutics Asia (ST Asia).

International studies have shown that the use of GLIOLAN during brain tumour surgery has nearly doubled the rate of achieving a complete removal of the main tumour bulk, which in turn has resulted in a doubling of the number of patients without progression of their brain cancer six months after surgery.