What Is Glioblastoma?

Glioblastoma is the most common type of malignant brain tumor, making up half of all brain cancers.

This fast-growing cancer occurs in the cells that support the brain's nerve cells.

About 3 in 100,000 people in the U.S. receive a glioblastoma diagnosis in their lifetime.

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Glioblastoma Overview

At this point, doctors don't know what causes this type of brain cancer.

Certain factors can increase the risk of glioblastoma. Many times, people with no risk factors develop the tumor.

Risk factors include:

  • Past radiation treatment, especially to the head or neck.
  • Rare genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, and von Hippel-Lindau disease.
  • Age, with most glioblastomas found in people 45 to 75.

Right now, there are no proven ways to reduce your risk of glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma Symptoms and Diagnosis

The symptoms of a glioblastoma might be mild at first, but slowly get worse.

Symptoms include:

  • Headaches.
  • Vomiting.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Memory loss.
  • Seizures.
  • Balance or movement issues.
  • Mood or personality changes.
  • Speech problems.
  • Problems processing information.

Doctors will first ask about your symptoms.

They will then do some simple tests that don't require advanced equipment. These include tests of balance, memory, and eye coordination.

If the doctor suspects a brain tumor, they may order one or more of the following tests:

MRI or other imaging tests

Doctors most commonly use MRI to diagnose glioblastomas. A doctor may order other imaging tests like a CT scan, but an MRI offers the clearest image.

For the test, you'll get a shot of a safe dye (or you can also take the dye by mouth). This improves the contrast between normal and abnormal tissue.

Biopsy to diagnose glioblastoma

Doctors can take a sample of the tumor using a needle. An MRI guides this process.

By looking at the sample under a microscope, doctors can diagnose the cancer as glioblastoma or another type of brain tumor.

They can also look for certain molecular markers that will help guide the treatment and affect prognosis.

While a biopsy can confirm a diagnosis, most people will benefit from surgery to remove the tumor.

Glioblastoma Treatment

Because glioblastomas are aggressive, doctors often recommend a mix of treatments.

Treatment can add years to your life, but there is currently no cure for glioblastoma.

Your brain surgeon will remove as much of the tumor as they can while avoiding damage to healthy cells.

They can use various techniques to guide this operation, such as:

  • Real-time MRI scans of the brain.
  • A drug that binds to the cancer cells and changes their color.

Surgeons can't fully remove glioblastomas because they have tiny branches that grow into healthy brain tissue. The human eye can't see these branches and they don't show up in MRIs.

Doctors target remaining cancer cells with radiation and chemotherapy.

With this treatment, the radiologist programs a machine to target high-energy beams at the site of the cancer.

You will lie down and be awake since the treatment is painless.

Doctors often treat glioblastomas with both radiation and chemo.

Chemo drugs shrink glioblastomas. You take them by mouth or through an IV in your arm.

Your surgeon may also place a very slow-release chemo drug in the brain during surgery.

The dose and delivery route depend on many factors, including:

  • The genetic markers of the glioblastoma.
  • Your age.
  • Past treatments.

While chemo kills fast dividing cells (including some normal cells), targeted therapies go after cancer cells only. These drugs destroy or stop the activity of certain proteins found in the cancer cells.

There are a small number of targeted cancer treatments on the market.

A DNA test tells us if the tumor has genes that make any of the proteins these drugs target. 

TTF makes a low-intensity electrical field that disrupts highly-charged proteins in glioblastoma cells.

You wear transducers on the scalp, affixed with bandages and plugged into a battery. The treatment doesn't affect healthy cells and you can wear the transducers throughout the day.

Unfortunately, glioblastomas are often fatal within a few years. But 5 to 10% of people survive 5 years or more after diagnosis.

Over the last decade, research has found new treatments that have pushed the survival rate higher.

Doctors at UPMC and around the world are testing novel treatments that could greatly improve outcomes.

Why Choose UPMC for Glioblastoma Care?

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides seamless care between our flagship in Pittsburgh and more than 70 locations across 4 states. This gives you access to world-class expertise and cutting-edge tests and treatments while staying near home for most of your treatment.

With the biggest neurosurgery program in the U.S., UPMC attracts surgeons skilled in a range of techniques and technologies. These include functional image-guided surgery, laser surgery, and many others.

Our brain and nervous system cancer doctors:

  • See around 200 people each year with glioblastoma. We provide proven treatments to improve their symptoms and extend their lives.
  • Lead a number of trials to test promising new treatments. These include new targeted therapies, radiation advances, immunotherapies, and more.
  • Stay up-to-date in research advances through their central involvement in National Institutes of Health and other leading research networks. This means we can also connect you with trials happening across the country.