Learn about progress in brain cancer research at the Quest for a Cure May 2021

May 19, 2021

Every year, more than 23,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with brain cancer or other nervous system cancers. Although this may not seem like a high incidence compared to other more common cancers, such as breast or lung cancers, brain cancer is usually diagnosed only after symptoms occur when the tumor is large and may be very aggressive and difficult to treat. The University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center’s Quest for a Cure event on May 27, gives the public an opportunity to learn from two of Hawaiʻi’s brain cancer experts, Thomas Noh, MD, and Christina Speirs, MD.

Brain cancer incidence and mortality in Hawaiʻi

From 2012-2016, an average of 67 adults were diagnosed annually with brain cancer or other nervous system cancers in Hawai‘i. For the most aggressive forms of brain cancer, the average survival time is just 15 to 16 months after a patient is diagnosed and has received standard surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. Brain cancer has a higher mortality rate and disability compared to many other cancers due to its location and the lack of screening for early detection.

“Since there is no form of early detection for brain cancer, the disease can be difficult to treat,” said Thomas Noh, MD, Hawai‘i Pacific Health neurosurgeon and Quest presenter. “The treatment of brain tumors typically involves a multidisciplinary approach that includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. These treatments can be very invasive, and the patient’s doctor must carefully weigh a myriad of pros and cons to come up with the best course of action.”

Although cancer in children is rare, brain tumors are the most common solid tumors that affect children and adolescents. The location of brain tumors often causes complications, and required treatments can result in long-term intellectual and neurological impairment.

Cancer biology research at the UH Cancer Center

There are many types of brain tumors, which are masses or growths of abnormal cells in the brain. Some tumors are benign, meaning they are not cancerous, and others are malignant or cancerous. Primary tumors begin in the brain, while metastatic tumors begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain. The speed of a tumor’s growth can vary greatly from person to person. The growth rate and location within the brain determine how the tumor affects the nervous system’s functions.

Investigators within the UH Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology Program are conducting basic research to better understand how different cancers develop and grow at the cellular level, and how to treat these diseases more effectively. One of these investigators is UH Cancer Center Deputy Director and Professor Joe W. Ramos, PhD, who is working with collaborators to identify the underlying mechanisms that control brain cancer cell invasion in the most aggressive forms of the disease for which there are currently limited therapeutic options.

“For one type of brain cancer, stage IV glioblastoma, we found a protein called RSK2, which controls a number of processes in the tumor cells that cause them to invade surrounding tissue,” said Ramos. “In pre-clinical models, we discovered that targeting this protein to block its function reduces invasiveness and eventually kills the glioblastoma cells.”

Treatments and symptoms

Treatment for brain cancer depends on the type, size, and location of the tumor. Surgery is one form of treatment that is commonly used when the tumor is small and located where it is operable. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are other forms of brain cancer treatment. “One of the most significant advancements in radiation therapy has been the rise of molecular subtyping of brain cancers, which allows us to determine whether radiation therapy is truly the best form of treatment for each patient,” said Christina Speirs, MD, radiation oncologist at The Cancer Center of Hawaii and Quest presenter.

Brain cancer symptoms include headaches that become more frequent and severe over time, unexplained nausea or vomiting, vision problems, loss of sensation or movement in an arm or a leg, loss of balance, problems with speech, seizures, and hearing problems. If you are experiencing any of these persistent symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor right away.

Quest for a Cure: Progress in Cancer Research

Learn more about brain cancer at the annual Quest for a Cure, a free public educational event, for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer. On May 27, from 5:00-6:00 p.m., Drs. Noh and Speirs will talk about surgical and radiation treatment interventions in brain cancers.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Quest event is being presented as a series of Zoom webinars held on the last Thursday in May, June, and July. Please save these dates and join us to learn more about cancer.