Brain Tumors - Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Diseases / Research

Brain Tumors


Meduloblastoma tumor from the cerebellum stained to differentiate subsets of neural cells (red) and MyoD (green)

Photo by Fred Hutch's Olson Lab, Sue Knoblaugh and Experimental Histopathology

Click for high-res version

Fred Hutch scientists are making promising discoveries to improve treatment of brain tumors, including medulloblastoma, a prevalent childhood cancer.

Our brain tumor scientists include Dr. Eric Holland, director of the Human Biology Division and one of the nation’s leading neurosurgeons and brain cancer researchers.

Fast Facts

  • Primary brain tumors form in brain tissue because of abnormal cell growth and can occur in several different forms.

  • The most common brain tumors are gliomas, which begin in the supportive, glial tissue. There are several types of gliomas: astrocytomas, brain stem gliomas, ependymomas, and oligodendrogliomas. Other types of brain tumors begin in other regions of the brain.

  • In rare cases, cancer cells may break away from a malignant brain tumor and spread to other parts of the brain, to the spinal cord, or to other parts of the body.

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Prevention & Causes

Fred Hutch researchers are investigating brain cancer's causes, with the goal of translating that knowledge into more effective treatments and prevention measures.

Identifying childhood brain cancer's causes – Dr. Valeri Vasioukhin and colleagues discovered that mouse gene that is necessary for normal brain development may also contribute to some of the most common brain tumors in children. Known as lethal giant larvae 1, or Lgl1, the gene plays a critical role in shaping cell behavior during embryonic brain development. Learn more >

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Treatment & Prognosis

Fred Hutch is a world-leader in developing treatments for brain cancers that affect adults and children. Our researchers are:

Tackling brain cancer with immunotherapy - Dr. Fan Zhang, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Matthias Stephan in Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Clinical Research Division, is using nanoparticles to take immunotherapy in a new direction. The American Brain Tumor Association awarded Zhang $100,000 to develop nanoparticles that can be used to reprogram tumor-infiltrating macrophages, a type of immune cell that eats cellular debris and diseased cells, to attack the cancer that surrounds them. Learn more >

Identifying cancer-promoting genese - Dr. Eric Holland leads the Fred Hutch team, a joint effort with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, that developed a computational methods sheds light on how cancer-contributing genese make brain tumor more aggressive and radiation-resistant. Learn more >

Engineering stem cells to treat brain tumors Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem and colleagues have developed a way to extract a brain cancer patient's blood stem cells and insert a special "resistance" gene designed to protect them from damage by common chemotherapy drugs, such as temozolomide and BCNU. Infusing these enhanced cells into patients could give them new hope against the most aggressive form of brain cancer—glioblastoma—which is very difficult to treat.

Addressing the molecular basis of brain tumors – Dr. Eric Holland and his colleagues are developing mouse models of brain cancer that mimic the behavior of the disease in patients and imaging strategies to follow tumors as they develop. These efforts have led to clinical trials for glioma patients.  Learn more >

Boosting the effectiveness of brain tumor drugs  Drs. Patrick Paddison and Olson are searching for new targets for therapies that increase the effectiveness of anticancer drugs currently in clinical trials. Employing a new technology called RNA interference, Paddison's group is identifying genetic nodes that can be shut off to make brain tumor cells more vulnerable to existing treatments.

Collaborating to treat glioblastoma – The Olson lab is collaborating with Dr. Patrick Paddison, who has discovered a method for identifying genes that kill cancer cells while sparing normal cells. The team has identified two novel targets that killed glioblastoma cells while sparing neural stem cells. Now Fred Hutch is working with other leading organizations to identify drugs that affect the identified targets.

Developing therapies for untreated tumors – Traditionally, patients with a rare brain cancer called supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumors (sPNETs) have been grouped with patients suffering from another, more common malignant brain tumor: medulloblastoma. Although both brain tumors are treated with the same drug, survival rates in patients with sPNETs have not improved. The Olson lab, in partnership with Seattle Children's, is investigating whether current drugs may effectively treat sPNETs.

Improving drug delivery – The Olson lab has invented "porous needle array" technology that allows investigators to inject multiple drugs into a single solid tumor. The lab is using the technology to identify and prioritize drug combinations for pediatric brain tumor patients while pharmaceutical companies are using it to identify drugs that are more effective in combination than individually. The technology is being commercialized by Seattle-based Presage Biosciences.

Finding new uses for old drugs – Fred Hutch researchers have created the world's first patient-derived models for this solid tumor. After screening more than 700 possible targets for treatment, seven targets were identified for which drugs already exist. Those candidates are being used in mouse studies. Human clinical trials are expected to launch within three years.

Childhood brain tumors

Pursuing natural treatments – Dr. Olson and his colleagues have shown that a plant chemical known as cyclopamine stops the growth of the most common malignant childhood brain cancer, called medulloblastoma. These drugs block a specific pathway that is critical for medulloblastoma growth. They represent a first step toward replacing more toxic therapies. Learn more >

Working to improve medulloblastoma treatment – Hutch investigators recently completed a study that identified a drug known as IPI-926 that dramatically increases the survival of mice with medulloblastoma tumors, without chemotherapy and radiation. Investigators also discovered the drug is only effective in 15 to 20 percent of patients with mutations of a specific pathway in the brain. These discoveries will influence future national clinical trials of IPI-926.

Investigating treatments based on vitamin A – Dr. Olson and colleagues also found that drugs derived from vitamin A—known as retinoids—may be highly effective and minimally toxic treatments for medulloblastoma. Learn more >

Technological platform to identify new drugs - A team of researchers based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has built a large-scale system for producing, screening and characterizing a class of tiny protein knots that are a relatively untapped source of new drugs to treat tough diseases, like brain cancer. The small proteins, or peptides, are dubbed “cystine-dense peptides” after the type of strong chemical bond that shapes and stabilizes them. Learn more >

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