Brain and Central Nervous System Tumors

Current Projects
Adrienne A. Boire, MD, PhD

Leptomeningeal metastasis, or spread of cancer cells into the spinal fluid, is a devastating complication of cancer resulting in rapid neurologic disability and death. With little mechanistic information to guide treatment decisions, efforts at treatment are too often futile. To address this critical knowledge gap, Adrienne will employ a translational approach to analyze patient samples utilizing multiple, complementary, orthogonal molecular strategies as tools for discovery. This approach will be coupled with hypothesis-driven mouse models to assemble coherent molecular mechanisms that describe cancer cell interactions with their microenvironment. This mechanistic work will suggest new targets for therapeutic intervention, paving the way for novel treatment approaches. Dr. Boire works under the mentorship of Joan Massagué, PhD, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York.

Project title: "Molecular determinants of leptomeningeal metastasis: a translational approach"
Institution: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Named Award: William Raveis Charitable Fund Investigator
Award Program: Clinical Investigator
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Joan Massagué, PhD
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Cancer Genetics
Priscilla K. Brastianos, MD

Brain metastases are the most common tumor in the brain, most frequently originating from melanoma and carcinomas of the lung and breast. Of patients who develop brain metastases, approximately half succumb to the cancer in their brain. Unfortunately, treatment options are limited, and most current clinical trials in the US exclude patients with brain metastases. Dr. Brastianos recently completed a large study to understand the genetic changes that occur in brain metastases. She identified genetic alterations in brain metastases that predict sensitivity to targeted therapies. She will conduct a biomarker-driven Phase 2 study to evaluate targeted therapy in patients with brain metastases harboring specific genetic alterations. Her research will incorporate cutting-edge genomic technology and animal models to understand predictors of response, as well as resistance to targeted therapies. As most genomically guided trials in cancer have excluded patients with active brain metastases, this represents a potential paradigm shift in the management of patients with brain metastases.

Project title: "Investigation of novel targeted therapeutic approaches for brain metastases"
Institution: Massachusetts General Hospital
Award Program: Clinical Investigator
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Keith T. Flaherty, MD and Tracy T. Batchelor, MD
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Invasion and Metastasis
Amelia N. Chang, PhD

Dr. Chang is investigating the role of activity-regulated gene expression in human brain evolution. Activity-regulated pathways control critical brain functions and modulate tumor growth in multiple cancers. These pathways are broadly conserved across all mammals, but newer studies have identified features that are unique to primates and may influence important aspects of brain function and tumor progression. Dr. Chang will study the function, regulation, and evolution of primate-specific genes. Through these experiments, she aims to uncover molecular insight into what makes humans susceptible to cancer.

Project title: "The role of activity-regulated gene expression in human brain evolution"
Institution: Harvard Medical School
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Michael E. Greenberg, PhD
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Neuroscience
Gavin P. Dunn, MD, PhD

Glioblastoma remains the most aggressive brain tumor diagnosed in patients, and it is clear that new treatment strategies are needed. There is significant optimism around the use of approaches that stimulate a patient's immune system to treat brain tumors. Gavin focuses on identifying the specific components of a patient's brain tumor that the immune system recognizes and determining whether there are regional differences in this immune recognition. He hopes that this work will increase our understanding of how the immune system recognizes brain cancers and will increase our understanding of how to rationally design personalized vaccines to treat these tumors. 

Project title: "Characterizing the immunogenic landscapes of malignant brain tumors"
Institution: Washington University
Award Program: Clinical Investigator
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): John F. DiPersio, MD, PhD, and Robert D. Schreiber, PhD
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Immunotherapy
Christina L. Hueschen, PhD

Dr. Hueschen studies the motility of Apicomplexan parasites, which cause malaria, foodborne illness (toxoplasmosis) and infections in immunocompromised cancer patients. These parasites move through the human body using a mechanism called "gliding" to migrate over host cells and through the surrounding extracellular matrix. Dr. Hueschen's goal is to understand how molecules inside the parasite are organized, coordinated and regulated to produce forces that direct movement. This research has the potential to aid in the development of therapies to prevent opportunistic infections.

Project title: "Molecular basis and regulation of apicomplexan parasite motility"
Institution: Stanford University
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Alex Dunn, PhD
Cancer Type: Gastric, Brain, Colorectal, All Cancers
Research Area: Cell Biology
Marcela V. Maus, MD, PhD

Dr. Maus is engineering the body's own immune T cells to fight deadly brain tumors like glioblastoma. However, in studies of patients with brain tumors, she has found that tumor cells can escape the engineered T cells. She is now redesigning T cells so that they block escape routes used by the tumors. She expects that the engineered cells will be more powerful and may become a new effective treatment for brain tumors. The engineered CAR T cells are designed to target cells displaying multiple abnormal proteins (antigens) made from cancer-causing oncogenes; theywill act as drug carriers to address the specific hurdles of antigen heterogeneity and penetrating the blood brain barrier. She is testing these "living drugs" in vitro and in mouse models with the goal of ultimately advancing these studies to human clinical trials. Furthermore, if this system works for brain tumors, it has the potential to be applied as a therapy for other forms of cancer as well.

Project title: "Next-generation CAR T cells for EGFRvIII-positive glioblastoma"
Institution: Massachusetts General Hospital
Award Program: Innovator
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Immunotherapy
Natasha M. O'Brown, PhD

Dr. O'Brown is investigating the molecular mechanisms that govern the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which acts as the gatekeeper for the brain. While the BBB protects the brain from pathogens and provides the necessary environment for normal brain function, the BBB also acts as an obstacle to drug delivery for the treatment of neurological diseases, including brain tumors. A key regulator of BBB integrity, Mfsd2a, limits transcellular movement across the barrier and therefore prevents leakage into the brain. Using a combination of zebrafish genetics, small molecule screens, and live imaging, she aims to understand how this protein regulates these BBB processes. By investigating the cellular signals that induce or remove barrier properties, she hopes to identify ways by which she can selectively manipulate the barrier to allow for drug delivery to the brain.

Project title: "Molecular and cellular mechanisms of transcytosis regulation in blood-brain barrier function"
Institution: Harvard Medical School
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Sean G. Megason, PhD, and Chenghua Gu, PhD
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Developmental Biology
Esteban A. Orellana Vinueza, PhD

Dr. Orellana Vinueza is investigating whether changes that modify the shape, stability and function of transfer RNAs (tRNAs) play a role in the development of cancer. The tRNA molecules are involved in the process that translates messenger RNA into a protein. Dr. Orellana Vinueza focuses on a tRNA methyltransferase complex that malfunctions in glioblastoma and liposarcoma. He will assess how alterations in the activity of this enzyme affect global patterns of methylation in normal and human cancer cells. Methylation is the process that controls the timing and amount of proteins that are produced in cells. Understanding how this process breaks down may help decipher the mechanisms that drive cancer and guide the development of new treatments.

Project title: "Role of METTL1-WDR4 tRNA methyltransferase complex in cancer"
Institution: Boston Children's Hospital
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Richard I. Gregory, PhD
Cancer Type: Brain, Sarcoma
Research Area: RNA (RNA processing, miRNA and piRNA mechanisms, enzymatic RNAs, etc.)
Sarah J. Pfau, PhD

Dr. Pfau aims to identify the molecular regulators of blood-brain barrier heterogeneity. The blood-brain barrier (BBB) protects the brain from harmful substances to ensure proper brain function. Consequently, the BBB renders many cancer therapeutics ineffective for treatment of primary and metastatic brain tumors, as drugs that effectively treat cancer in the rest of the body cannot efficiently enter the brain. She seeks to better understand how the BBB functions by characterizing the “windows of the brain,” regions where the barrier is naturally more open to allow communication between the brain and the rest of the body through the bloodstream. In determining how the BBB is altered in these regions, she anticipates that her work will identify key molecular regulators that the brain naturally uses to open the blood-brain barrier and thus provide insight into how it can be modulated to promote drug delivery to tumors in the brain.

Project title: "Investigating the molecular determinants of blood-brain barrier heterogeneity"
Institution: Harvard Medical School
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Chenghua Gu, PhD
Cancer Type: Brain
Research Area: Neuroscience
Jay F. Sarthy, MD, PhD

Dr. Sarthy is developing new easy-to-use and affordable methods for studying DNA packaging and epigenetics (modification of gene expression) in pediatric cancers with a special focus on diffuse midline gliomas and neuroblastoma. These methods may help explain the drivers of pediatric malignancies and allow clinicians to better monitor response to treatment with the goal of developing new drugs that restore the cell’s ability to package DNA correctly.

Project title: "Characterization of the epigenomic landscape of diffuse midline gliomas"
Institution: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Award Program: Sohn Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Steven Henikoff, PhD
Cancer Type: Blood, Other Cancer, Pediatric, Brain
Research Area: Epigenetics
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