A critique of the role of the blood-brain barrier in the chemotherapy of human brain tumors

J Neurooncol. 1994;20(2):121-39. doi: 10.1007/BF01052723.


There is general agreement that most chemotherapy agents achieve only relatively low concentrations in the normal central nervous system, that the blood-brain barrier is variably disrupted in malignant brain tumors, and that the concentration of chemotherapy drugs in the brain adjacent to tumor is intermediate between concentrations achieved in brain tumors vs normal brain. However, there is substantial controversy regarding the role of the blood-brain barrier in resistance to chemotherapy of intracerebral tumors. Many chemotherapy agents achieve concentrations in brain tumors that are comparable to those in extracerebral tumors, and drugs that cross the intact blood-brain barrier only poorly may be active against intracerebral tumors. Furthermore, the hypothesis that the brain is a pharmacological sanctuary where metastases may grow while tumor is responding in other parts of the body may be flawed: there are only 2 or 3 types of malignancies (out of all those that are sensitive to chemotherapy) in which the risk of isolated central nervous system relapse is moderately high, and even in these 2 or 3, effective central nervous system prophylaxis has minimal or no impact on overall survival. Furthermore, drugs that cross the BBB do not appear to be more effective than other drugs at reducing the risk of brain metastases, and brain metastases at the time of diagnosis do not necessarily convey a worse prognosis than metastases to various other sites. While average drug concentrations in brain adjacent to tumor are lower than those within brain tumors, very small numbers of tumor cells may be capable of inducing local leakiness in blood vessels, and there is little information on drug concentrations achieved in individual tumor cells within the brain adjacent to tumor. Furthermore, any limitation of uptake of drugs into brain tumors could be at least partially due to increased tissue pressure within tumors rather than being due to blood-brain barrier phenomena. This distinction could be important, since strategies that one might use to increase drug delivery to brain tumors might differ depending on whether the reduced delivery were due to barrier phenomena vs blood flow phenomena. The role of the blood-brain barrier in resistance of intracerebral tumors to chemotherapy remains unclear: while it may well play some role (and perhaps even a major one), self-fulfilling prophecies and unintentional bias in data selection and interpretation may have previously made it appear more important than it actually is.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacokinetics*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology*
  • Brain Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Brain Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Cisplatin / pharmacokinetics
  • Glioma / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lymphoma / metabolism


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Cisplatin