Brain surgery remains one of the more complex procedures in the clinical arsenal, an intervention any doctor would like to avoid if possible. But many conditions – a growing brain tumor, a bleeding hemorrhage – require the surgeon to go in, opening the skull, dodging blood vessels, and preserving healthy tissue to correct the problem. If these maladies were somehow preventable or treatable with a medication, it could cut down on the complications and cost of neurosurgery. Even so, you might be surprised to find a surgeon doing the research that could someday reduce his own workload.
That’s the case with Issam Awad, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and the latest paper in his project studying an abnormality of the brain’s blood vessels. Cerebral cavernous malformation (CCM), alternatively known as cavernous angioma, occurs when the small blood vessels of the brain grow abnormally large. These malformations can occasionally form a dangerous lesion, leading to headaches, bleeding in the brain, or stroke. But it wasn’t until the routine use of MRI technology until clinicians discovered just how commonly CCM can be found – 1 in 500 people – even though it is often non-symptomatic.
The presence of non-symptomatic CCM complicates the matter further for neurosurgeons, who must decide whether to perform surgery to correct the lesion or wait to see if it worsens. This dilemma is especially difficult in patients with a family history of CCM, which makes up about one-third of the cases. Waiting to see if the angioma is going to become problematic enough to require surgery can be a frustrating experience.
“There is currently no treatment in clinical use to either prevent the formation or the maturation of these lesions,” Awad said. “The way we deal with them now is we wait until a lesion gets bad or does something bad, and then we take it out.”
Awad and colleagues Douglas Marchuk from Duke University and Mark Ginsberg at the University of California, San Diego have used those familial CCM cases to find the cause of the condition, focusing on a gene called KRIT1 (or CCM1 for its clinical significance). By knocking down KRIT1, they could create a mouse model that formed CCM lesions, and study the cellular signals that accompany the condition. It turned out that reducing the activity of KRIT1 increased the activity of a signal called ROCK, which made CCM lesions leakier and more severe. CCM lesions removed surgically from human subjects by Awad also tested for high levels of ROCK, suggesting that the mechanism was the same across species.
So the obvious hypothesis to test was whether an inhibitor of ROCK could block the formation of CCM lesions. For a paper published yesterday in Stroke, researchers from the three laboratories performed the experiments in their mouse model of CCM, treating the mice for four months with a ROCK inhibitor drug called fasudil. When they compared the brains of these drug-treated animals to the brains of animals treated with a placebo, they found fewer lesions, smaller lesions, and a reduction in inflammation and hemorrhage after fasudil.
“This animal model and humans have lesions that are aggressive and symptomatic: They leak blood, they show inflammatory properties, and endothelial cells multiply or proliferate,” Awad said. “None of these features were present in the fasudil-treated mice. It was like the lesion was chilled down and shrunk.”
Though promising, this early experiment was performed in only a small number of mice. More extensive testing in animals – and if everything goes well, in human clinical trials – will be required before the drug can be deployed in the neurology practice. Fasudil is also not yet approved for use in the United States, though it is used in Japan for a different neurological condition and has been “clinically well tolerated” there, Awad said.
“This treatment approach will require validation and optimization in additional experiments before initiation of clinical trials; nevertheless, no other drug has ever before been shown to prevent lesion development, and this effect appears very promising,” Awad said. “Our collaborative group is uniquely positioned with tools in hand to help develop this therapy.”
The first clear use of the drug would be to lower the risk for people with the familial form of CCM. But Awad is hopeful that the drug would also have a protective effect in people who suffer from sporadic forms of the condition, as those lesions also show abnormally high ROCK activity when tested.
“This treatment does not cure the disease,” Awad said. “But if it is successfully translated to human therapy, it would be a bit like treating multiple sclerosis, where many treatments do not eliminate the primary disease trigger, but can muffle it, slow it down and make it not as serious, and therefore allow a patient to effectively live with the disease, as opposed to having the disease dictate their health.”