DIGGING DEEPER: COVID lockdown leads Peoria scientist to discovery that could assist Glioblastoma patients

Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 11:47 PM CST
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PEORIA (25 News Now) -Through the inactivity forced on us in the spring of 2020 came a scientific coincidence: extra time to study the make-up of the coronavirus.

“Why is it that it is shown in the spike protein of COVID?” said Dr. Kiran Velpula, who quickly recognized a familiar element of Glioblastoma, Galectin-1.

As lab director at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria (UICOMP), Velpula knew Galectin-1 was found in large quantities in glio patients, who rarely survive.

It is an animal lectin, or carbohydrate-binding protein that was now showing itself in COVID-19.

“The same target is helping the brain cancer to be more aggressive,” Velpula said.

He and his team in Peoria set out to learn more.

Over the next two years, they’ve been focused on the molecular interaction between healthy cells, often blue in the experiments, and that cancer-enabling protein, often in red.

“You know, our concept is to find out the ways that the cancer cells rob the energy,” Velpula said, with something glio researchers need more of hope.

“For the first time, I saw multiple activities or multiple facets of the tumor could be controlled,” Velpula said.

Two different drug companies have shown interest in his findings.

“Will targeting Galectin stop the tumor growth as well as stop the inflammation (of COVID) is my next question. We are going to make Galectin-1 the flagship of our laboratory,” Velpula said.

It is encouraging to the many lives already touched by the brain cancer that has a typical survival rate of 14 months.

“I love that people are still looking for answers,” said Grace Hendrick, a Peoria woman who lost her husband to glio in May, 2022.

She and Drew Hendrick had only been married since November of 2019, when Drew complained of a headache the following April, as COVID was shutting down the entire country.

She was six months pregnant with their first child, Cameron.

By the time they learned his tumor was Glioblastoma and he had a second surgery toward the end of 2021, they were about to expand the family.

Charlotte was born in April of this year.

“So, toddler and brand-new infant at home. The first was my birthday and Drew made this spectacular breakfast,” Grace said.

But it was later, as they drove to the Mayo clinic, just as they had been doing since the first trip to the E.R., that Drew remembered to say “Happy Birthday!”

“I had to drive because Drew had lost vision on the left side in his second surgery,” Grace said. “I used to think that story was sad. Now I think it’s cool...he was still trying to do things for me.”

Drew passed in early May at age 33.

“And, he said, I have faith in the plan. So, I just repeat, I can hear him saying that in my head and I just tell myself that every day,” Grace said.

She is watching developments at UICOMP where Dr. Velpula is promising another paper based on his glio research, soon.

As for Grace, she’s raising the two kids without their father, but she is finding some comfort in a Facebook group called Wives of GBM Patients.