Primary central nervous system (CNS) tumors constitute a small fraction of the overall incidence of human cancer, but they represent a major source of cancer-related morbidity and mortality. The most common CNS tumor subtype in adults, high-grade astrocytoma, confers a dismal prognosis with a median survival of only 1 to 2 years. Other common adult CNS tumors, ie, low-grade astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas, carry a less ominous, yet still poor prognosis. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in extending the survival or quality of life for glioma patients, despite nearly four decades of extensive research. This research has, however, greatly increased our understanding of the underlying molecular biology of these tumors, examples of which include the determination of elevated epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) as well as platelet-derived growth factor receptor (PDGF) signaling, and the inactivation of p53, p16, and PTEN tumor-suppressor genes (TSGs) that negatively regulate specific enzymatic activities in normal glial cells. Such observations have greatly improved our understanding of the pathogenesis of these tumors and have potential diagnostic as well as therapeutic relevance. With respect to the latter of these two issues, the identification of aberrant enzymatic activities in gliomas has promoted the development of novel therapeutic agents that target specific signaling effectors, and whose inhibition should, in theory, prove to be cytostatic, if not cytotoxic, to tumor cells. Several clinical trials are currently underway for testing these therapeutic agents in patients with primary brain tumors, and it is hoped that the targeting of pro-tumorigenic enzymatic activities will lead to better patient outcomes. In this review, we will describe the most pertinent genetic and signaling pathway alterations that are clinically relevant to the management of glial tumors.
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