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Chemotherapy drug damages brain, say researchers

Researchers have concluded that a commonly used chemotherapy drug may cause healthy brain cells to die off long after the end of treatment, potentially causing the loss of cognitive function many cancer patients suffer from.

A team of researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and Harvard Medical School studied the drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), and published their findings recently in the Journal of Biology.

They linked the treatment to a decrease in the number of stem cells in the central nervous system.

Dr Mark Noble, director of the University of Rochester Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute, and senior author of the study, said: “This study is the first model of a delayed degeneration syndrome that involves a global disruption of the myelin-forming cells that are essential for normal neuronal function.

“Because of our growing knowledge of stem cells and their biology, we can now begin to understand and define the molecular mechanisms behind the cognitive difficulties that linger and worsen in a significant number of cancer patients.”

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Cancer patients who have undergone chemotherapy have reported side effects ranging from short-term memory loss to seizures, vision loss and dementia in some cases.

A study in 2006 by researchers with the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester found that over 82% of breast cancer patients reported that they suffered from some form of cognitive impairment.

Other studies found that these neurological side effects lingered much longer than the drugs themselves in the patients’ systems. A recent US study estimated that between 15-20% of the country’s 2.4 million female breast cancer survivors had lingering cognitive problems years after treatment.

These neurological side effects, collectively known as “chemo brain”, had until recently been dismissed as the result of fatigue and anxiety, but now are being studied in their own right.

University of Rochester Medical Center