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Hospital expands brain tumor center

The Stanford Cancer Institute recently designated its long-standing program on brain tumor research to be the new Brain Tumor Center in response to the continued expansion of brain tumor research.

According to Griffith Harsh, professor of neurology and director of the Stanford Brain Tumor Center, this change in name will increase a “sense of group identity” among the doctors involved and allows the group to better present itself to the Stanford community and the general public as a “multidisciplinary group offering innovative therapy.” Harsh believes the new name implies “focused expertise,” state-of-the-art medical techniques and “patient-focused, patient-friendly coordinated care.”

“In the community, [the change in name] lets people know that we are dedicating resources and research time to brain tumors,” clinical assistant professor of neurology Seema Nagpal said. “I think for us it’s a nice big step into showing that Stanford is committed to brain cancers and brain tumor sciences.”

The center, which focuses on treating tumors of the brain, the brain lining and skull base, pituitary glands and the spine and spinal cord, is made up of a multidisciplinary group of physicians and nursing and rehabilitation personnel. Since its inception, the program has treated thousands of patients, some of whom have traveled from Asia and South Africa for treatment. Members of the program meet regularly as a board to discuss individual cases, and patients have access to joint clinics, where they can meet with multiple physicians and have imaging studies performed all in one day.

Nagpal emphasized the center’s focus on patient care.

“We really focus on quality of life and we take care of the family, not just the patient,” she said. “We recognize that a brain tumor is a pretty devastating disease to be diagnosed with. There’s a lot more than just the medicine and the chemotherapy happening; there’s huge life-adjustments, huge financial adjustments, huge planning for everything.”

In addition to expanding its personnel, the center has also achieved three research breakthroughs in the past year. The first was the discovery of a new genetic deletion in glioblastomas, which Harsh called the most malignant type of brain tumor. Harsh’s paper on the discovery was published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The second breakthrough involved identifying important contributions to tumor growth from metabolic pathways and the tumor’s unique blood vessel supply. Finally, Nagpal said that she and Lawrence Recht, the center’s senior neuro-oncologist, have identified a drug that increases quality of life for patients diagnosed with a glioblastoma after studying data from Stanford glioblastoma patients since 2003.

To treat brain tumors, the center uses new techniques such as entropic mapping of speech and motor function, which allows the doctors to remove a tumor while a patient is awake and speaking. The center also removes tumors through endoscopy, a surgery through the nose, eliminating riskier surgeries that involve opening the skull. Additionally, the physicians use a Cyberknife machine to focus radiation on specific areas of the brain and reduce the duration of radiation treatments.

Once the tumor tissue is removed, the center’s doctors test the tissue for the most up to date genetic markers. By analyzing these markers, they hope to develop personalized medicine regimens that target each patient’s specific tumor.

While the technology for distinguishing between the genetic make-ups of different tumors exists, Nagpal said the medical community has not yet developed the medicine to effectively target tumors based on that knowledge.