A version of the following article appeared originally in a special insert/section of USA TODAY today on 3/23/2016 called “Brain Health,” produced by Mediaplanet USA, as part of its “Future of Personal Health” campaign.
Recent innovations in research, and new discoveries about how brain tumors behave, are delivering promise for more and better treatments tomorrow
With upwards of 140 distinct types of brain tumors, and only a handful of treatments ever approved to treat these many variations of what is, on whole, a devastating disease, the need for innovation in neuro-oncology is unmistakable.
Fortunately, this past year saw a number of significant developments that have built on a solid foundation of established knowledge about the genetic and molecular characteristics of brain tumors, establishing the framework on which emerging discoveries, technology, and treatment strategies can be advanced.
Tellingly, at the 2016 Society for Neuro-Oncology (SNO) Annual Meeting this past November, Dr. Antonio Chiocca of Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, SNO’s President, described the main theme of the year’s conference alternatively as “moving the chains,” (a football reference) and “knowing the enemy better.” Dr. Chiocca was referencing the many presentations during SNO 2016 which aided the field’s understanding of brain tumors at a deeper level and will ultimately enable the breakthroughs needed for brain tumor patients to have better available treatment options.
Particularly encouraging in 2016 were discoveries regarding the role cancer stem cells, epigenetics, tumor metabolism, and tumor microenvironment play in the initiation, progression, and maintenance of tumors, as well as the corresponding feasibility of using immunotherapeutic and precision medicine approaches to exploit weakness in brain tumors. We’ve also seen improvements to surgical, imaging, radiation, liquid biopsy, and genome sequencing technologies and techniques, as well as a better understanding of how, when, and on whom to use chemotherapies like temozolomide and biologics like bevacizumab.
This progress portends exciting developments in the years to come. In 2017 and 2018, we expect to see more advanced data and possible results from later-stage clinical trials of both immunotherapies and targeted agents for brain tumor patients. As Dr. Michael Kim of Johns Hopkins Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center said in a recent blog post on the National Cancer Institute website, “Just the fact that we have some phase 3 trials in glioblastoma [the most common malignant brain tumor], where for years we had a hard time getting past phase 2 trials, is an encouraging sign. For the first time in a long time, there’s some real excitement.”
Other leaders in the field are even more bullish.
“In 2017, we will see a significant number of new therapeutic advances for the treatment of glioblastoma,” Dr. Mitch Berger of the University of California, San Francisco told the National Brain Tumor Society’s blog in January. “At the heart of these new therapies will be a personalized approach based upon the individual’s genomic signature…I do believe that this is going to be a breakthrough year for treating this disease.”
To borrow from Dr. Chiocca’s football metaphor, we are nearing the “redzone” of brain tumor research – the portion of the field in scoring range, just prior to the endzone – where the stakes become greater and the level of difficulty increases. We must move forward with a steely determination to “put points on the scoreboard” – it is what brain tumor patients need and deserve.