Childhood Cancer

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors can be low-grade, which tend to grow more slowly, or high-grade with faster growth rates and more commonly spread into normal brain tissue. There are several rare types and sub-types of pediatric brain tumors.  

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Latest Brain Tumors grants

Pamela Wolters, PhD, Principal Investigator
National Cancer Institute
Psychosocial Family Impact Grant, Awarded 2017
Susann Brady-Kalnay, PhD & Efstathios Karathanasis, PhD, Principal Investigator
Case Western Reserve University
Innovation Grants, Awarded 2017
Ranjit S. Bindra, MD/PhD & Mark Saltzman, PhD , Principal Investigator
Yale School of Medicine
Innovation Grants, Awarded 2017

Latest Brain Tumors blog posts

March 16, 2018


by Trish Adkins, ALSF

Dr. Jean Mulcahy-Levy, of the University of Colorado Denver got her start in research studying the behavior of fruit bats at the zoo.  

Now, she’s using Nobel Prize-winning science to find cures for brain tumors. 

Dr. Mulcahy-Levy’s research focuses on how blocking a cellular process called autophagy could eliminate brains tumors that have a specific mutation. All cells—both normal and cancer cells—perform autophagy, which is basically a cell-recycling program. Cells convert proteins within themselves into new energy. In 2016, a scientist named Yoshinori Ohsumi discovered the mechanisms that make autophagy happen and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology. 

Now in 2018, Dr. Mulcahy-Levy’s application of his work is leading to a potential clinical trial for children battling relapsed brain tumors. We spoke with Dr. Mulcahy-Levy about her research career. 

Who encouraged you to follow your passion for science and research?

(JL) When I was applying to college, I toured a couple of places. But it was when I met Dr. Becky Houck at the University of Portland that I knew I had found my science home. Her openness, passion and excitement for science was infectious, you just had to enjoy biology when you were around her. I was lucky enough to get my first taste of scientific research with Dr. Houck, studying the behavior of fruit bats at the zoo (funny question we tried to answer- did fruit bats have a preference for the right or left hand?) and how a summer camp education program changed kids’ perceptions of bats (changing kids view from vampire bat to cuddly cute fruit eating animals). 

Dr. Houck’s excitement for her work, and her constant support of my goals of being in science, were exactly what I needed to commit myself to a future in science. I have come a long way from trying to keep track of fruit bats and convincing kids the bats won’t eat them. But from that small project and the mentorship of my first strong female example of a scientist, I’ve never looked back.
What are obstacles that you have faced?

(JL) I think as a woman (or really anyone) in science you have to have the support of everyone around you to be successful. I have been lucky in that I haven’t had many obstacles to overcome and I have never felt that anyone thought I was inferior because I was a woman. 

I have had support from my female teachers and mentors such as Dr. Houck. But I have also been fully supported by the male teachers and mentors in my past. Dr. David Alexander, my pre-med advisor in college supported every way I tried to manipulate my schedule to get exactly the classes I needed to be ready for my medical training. He was also married to an intelligent and successful scientist in her own right, Dr. Paula Tower, and together they helped me get my first lab research job. From there, I have sought out the best research mentorships and training I could get.
How did Dr. Alexander and Dr. Tower’s support help you as a student?

(JL) I would never be where I am now without my pre-med advisor Dr. Alexander (affectionately known as Dr. A) and his wife Dr. Tower. College is a hard time and trying to get started in science is hard. But they constantly modeled not only excitement and joy in science but also the importance of home and family. Watching the two of them gave me a picture of what I wanted my life to be in the future. Dr. A passed away from colon cancer in 2013. But before then, he and Paula were my go to people to keep me sane during college, medical school, residency and fellowship. Paula continues to help me through the struggles of starting my own lab, training research assistants, how not to get annoyed at grant or manuscript reviews, and how I should really learn to cook (but that her house is always open if I need a good home cooked meal).

How has your family supported your career?

(JL) It has been traditional in the past that a wife will follow her husband for work. But my husband recognized early on that in order for me to succeed in research, I needed the freedom to go where the best training and opportunities were. He told me early in our relationship that he supports me and whatever I need to be successful. He has rearranged his life and the life of our son to give me the flexibility to surround myself with the best research environment. I could not have gotten to where I am without his selfless encouragement, willingness to pick up his life and move, and to sit there and listen to me drone on about some lab thing that is going great (or not so great) without falling asleep!

When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

(JL) A doctor. I was always going to be a doctor. I never did have a back-up plan, so thank goodness this is working out!

If cancer was cured, what would you be doing?

(JL) In my secret other life, I “work” in my husband’s motorcycle dealership and I am an officially licensed used car and motorcycle salesperson. So if cancer were cured, I would likely be spending my days working with my husband and playing with motorcycles!

In honor of Women’s History month in March, ALSF will feature interviews with some of our outstanding funded women researchers on the ALSF blog. You can follow along here

March 9, 2018

by Trish Adkins, ALSF

Ever since she was a child, Dr. Catherine Flores, of the University of Florida, loved the challenge of experimenting and investigating the origins of things. Now, as a pediatric cancer researcher, Dr. Flores is applying those interests to curing childhood brain cancer. 

ALSF awarded Dr. Flores a Young Investigator grant in 2015, which she used to study the preclinical development of adoptive cell therapy to fight high-grade gliomas,  a category of fast-growing pediatric brain tumors with particularly poor survival rates. Her project laid the groundwork to better understand how a child’s own immune system cells could be altered to fight brain tumor cells. This research may lead to better survival rates and minimize the use of treatments with high levels of toxicity. 

Her work also led to a phase 1 clinical trial that studies the use of immunotherapy in kids with high-grade gliomas. The study is set to open in March 2018 and phase 1 will determine safety and dose. It is the first immunotherapy study of its kind for children, moving the oncology world one step closer to a breakthrough and a cure. 

We spoke with Catherine Flores about her work and what it is like to be a woman researcher. 

What made you want to get into science and research? 

(CF): I have always been a curious person. I love exploration and experimentation. I love the discovery. I find "failed experiments" to be a challenge, not a discouragement. I never really realized that there aren't many women in science until my first faculty appointment and I am one of only two tenure-track female faculty members in my department. 

What are obstacles that you have faced?

(CF): I have a two-year-old and balancing life is such a challenge. Being a researcher is not a 9-5 job, so rearranging the day and writing at night to get it all done was and is a huge obstacle. But I love it all. It is just challenging, that's all. 

Sometimes, I feel a little judged when I come to work covered in banana, or can't do 6 pm meetings. BUT, I do a huge amount of work between my daughter's bedtime and sunrise. 
If cancer was cured, what would you be doing?

(CF): When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I love the ocean and its animals. It is still fascinating. After I cure brain cancer, I still want to be a marine biologist. 

Who are your role models?

(CF): Working moms with multiple children and Michelle Obama. 

Do you have an impact story from your research—a story when you saw your work help children?

(CF): We have a clinical trial out of our program for children with recurrent medulloblastoma and PNETs. One of our patients, Sawyer, had always wanted to be a scientist. So I closed down the lab for the day and set it up to make it "Sawyer's lab". We had a personalized lab coat made for him with the University of Florida and his name all embroidered. We set up a kid-friendly experiment for him on each bench complete with exploding bottles, dry ice, glow in the dark chemistry, all the kid things! At each bench, I had a different grad student helping him - because grad students in lab coats are super cool to an 8-year-old boy. Then we all had pizza which is his favorite. His mom mentioned that Sawyer had said it was more fun than Disneyland. 

Sadly, Sawyer passed away the following Christmas. Even though we couldn't ultimately help him fight against his disease, we at least let him be a scientist for a day. Sawyer was already unstable on his feet from his cancer, so his dad was there to keep him steady. That family made an impact on our grad students and researchers because we were all touched by him and inspired and motivated to do more. As lab researchers, we generally don't come in contact with patients, but it was amazing to see who we are trying to help. Interacting with him during a fun time made me want to work even harder. It also made me realize that receiving grants and manuscripts (our metrics as academics) are great, but they are nothing compared to actually finding a cure. 

This picture of me (above) with Sawyer making magnetic slime, is my favorite. It hangs in my office to inspire me every day. 

In honor of Women’s History month in March, ALSF will feature interviews with some of our outstanding funded women researchers on the ALSF blog. You can follow along here.

January 12, 2018

by Trish Adkins

Gone are the days of just chemotherapy and radiation. Today’s researchers and oncologists are combining the traditional tools with cutting-edge biological medicine, genetic analysis and novel therapeutics in the labs and clinics. 

Childhood cancer researchers are working hard towards better treatments and more cures every single day. Here are five trends in research today:

1. Treating the patient, not just the cancer

For over 40 years, scientists have known about oncogenes, the abnormal genes that can drive the growth of abnormal cells that become cancer. Now, childhood cancer researchers are discovering more about oncogenes and finding new ways to stop the development of cancer by targeting these “bad” genes. Researchers are also studying the biology of children with cancer to determine the best way to treat cancer within their body. 

“Every cancer is different, because every child is different,” said Dr. Julia Glade-Bender, a member of the ALSF Scientific Advisory Board and an oncologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Dr. Glade-Bender directs the Developmental Therapeutics Program at NYP, which works to identify the molecular drivers of each child’s cancer. Researchers will then use that information to personalize treatment using novel, biologically targeted agents during clinical trials.  

2. CAR T cell immunotherapy 

In August 2017, the FDA approved CAR (Chimeric Antigen Receptor) T cell immunotherapy as a treatment for certain types of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This is the first gene therapy to achieve FDA approval in the United States and one of the few major breakthroughs and approvals for pediatric oncology in recent years. 

Like other types of immunotherapy, CAR T cell therapy harnesses a patient’s immune system to fight and destroy cancer cells. The FDA approval does not just bring hope for children battling relapsed ALL; it opens the door for more innovative research for all types of childhood cancer.

“The anticipation is that this is the first step towards changing the landscape of how we treat pediatric leukemia. The vision is that ultimately, we can remove a lot of the standard chemotherapy that we use and replace it with CAR T cell therapy. It’s not something that is going to happen overnight, but I truly believe it is where we will end up,” said Dr. Rebecca Gardner, a physician at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and ALSF Young Investigator Grantee. 

Dr. Gardner recently led a clinical trial using CAR T cell therapy as a treatment for relapsed leukemia. In her trial, 93% of patients reached remission, after struggling to reach remission using traditional leukemia treatments. 

3. Big data for big cures

Collaboration in the pediatric oncology research community has driven science closer to cures; however, with millions of disconnected data points, critical information is often filed and forgotten.

The Childhood Cancer Data Lab, powered by ALSF, is building a data refinery. This is a central location to collect, harmonize, analyze and share childhood cancer data. The data refinery will provide access to the entire field of pediatric oncology.

Researchers will quickly connect their findings to the findings of other colleagues from around the world. This allows them to identify common patterns and apply these hidden connections toward the development of new therapies to accelerate cures for children.

The data refinery is set to launch in beta in March 2018.

4. Engineering cures 

ALSF Young Investigator Grantee, Dr. Steven Jonas from UCLA is developing tools to make the delivery of treatments like CAR T cell immunotherapy, quicker and more cost-effective.  

His research project focuses on developing and applying microfluidics—the technology that makes things like ink-jet printers work—to speed up the process of altering individual children’s T cells into the immunotherapy drugs that could ultimately cure their cancer. 

Researchers are also using nanotechnology to support immunotherapy treatments. Dr. Christopher Jewel, ALSF ‘A’ Award Grantee from the University of Maryland, studied the use of nanoparticles—small biodegradable particles—in conjunction with an experimental cancer vaccine for neuroblastoma. The nanoparticles are loaded with signals that stimulate the body’s immune system to fight cancer. 

5. Harnessing viruses to kill cancer

Researchers have long known that cancer cells are hiding from the body’s immune system. In addition to uncovering these cells through immunotherapy, researchers are also using viruses to infect cancer cells and trick the immune system into killing cancer cells. Called oncolytic virotherapy, this cutting-edge research uses altered versions of viruses like HIV, polio and herpes to fight leukemia, brain tumors and other solid cell tumors.  

ALSF Reach Grantees, Drs. Michael Burke and Jeffrey Medin, from the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, are using a virus to treat acute myeloid leukemia (AML).  Drs. Burke and Medin take a small number of leukemia cells from a patient and infect those cells with a virus outside of the body. The virus then tricks leukemia cells into making a protein called interleukin 12 (IL-12). When IL-12 cells are returned to the patient’s body, their immune system sees the infected cells and begins attacking the leukemia cells. 

The ALSF Grants Program is designed to fill critical voids in pediatric cancer research. ALSF works to fund all phases of research through 13 different grant programs. Each potential project is given careful consideration and reviewed by a team of leading scientists and clinicians. The result: ALSF is able to power breakthroughs and move closer to cures for childhood cancer.  Learn more about the ALSF grants program here