Brain Cancer Research Leads to New Treatment Options

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Since its opening in 2008, the Ben & Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment (the Ivy Center) at Swedish Medical Center's Neuroscience Institute has led the expansion drive of major research projects and expanded treatment options for patients living with brain cancer in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the world.  The Ivy Center was founded in 2008 to create a world-class treatment and research facility focused on delivering excellent patient care and advancing progress toward more effective treatments for brain cancer.

While great strides have been made in the treatment of breast, colon and other common cancers, only three new drugs to treat brain cancer have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in the past 35 years, and these drugs prolong the lives of patients by only a few months. Such a center was needed at the time, said Greg Foltz, MD, a neurosurgeon and director of the Ivy Center, because brain cancer had been for far too long a neglected or "orphan" disease.

In fact, today the life expectancy of a person diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common form of malignant primary brain cancer, is only about 15 months — only slightly better than it was a century ago, Dr. Foltz said. "We felt we needed to focus our efforts on   coming up with better treatment options," said Dr. Foltz. "We felt someone had to champion this cause so we embarked on a mission to get more researchers and physicians focused on this disease. And we did."

Today, the Ivy Center at Swedish has partnered with and led major brain cancer programs with the Ben & Catherine Ivy Foundation, Institute for Systems Biology, Allen Institute for Brain Science, University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Accium Biosciences and The Elliott Foundation. This has led to a variety of new brain cancer treatment options and research programs for people living with brain cancer in our region. "Previously, none of this existed," said Dr. Foltz.

Five Years of Progress Made

The goal of the Ivy Center was to create a place where brain tumor patients and their families would have access to the best care and latest clinical research. The Ivy Center has achieved this making it possible for the center's neurosurgeons, oncologists, radiologists and nursing staff to work in close collaboration with the program's team of scientists.  This collaboration allows clinicians and scientists to provide patients with the best of care as well as direct access to promising new therapies and clinical trials.

The Ivy Center's clinical team provides comprehensive, integrated care that includes the latest neurosurgery techniques and technology, including intra-operative MRI-guided navigation, precision Gamma Knife radiosurgery as well as the support of a team of physical and occupational therapists, counselors, and other specialists who provide each patient with comprehensive, personalized care.

"People with brain cancer have needs that transcend the traditional requirements of most patients. Care is not just about an operation, it's not just about a medication," said Dr. Foltz. "Brain cancer is a life-changing event, so it's very important from the first meeting that these patients know that we're there for them, that we care deeply about them and we're going to provide all the resources that are possible to help them fight their disease."

Holly Zimmerman, a Bellevue, Wash. resident who has been battling brain cancer and is leading a team in this year's Seattle Brain Cancer Walk, can speak personally to the importance of the first meeting. "A small seizure led doctors to the discovery of a tumor in my parietal lobe—what immediately followed was brain surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and a very scary prognosis for me and my family," said Zimmerman. "This disease is unique and it takes an extraordinary team of medical professionals to conquer it. As a one-year survivor of brain cancer, I have great hopes."

New Strategies in the Search for a Brain Cancer Cure

Over the past five years the Ivy Center has established an international reputation for its expertise in the genetic analysis of individual tumors. At the Ivy Center, a genetic profile is created of every patient's tumor with the goal to identify each tumor's individual weaknesses and to develop new, personalized treatment strategies that target these weaknesses.

The Ivy Center's genomic database — now one of the largest brain tumor research projects in the country — was developed in collaboration with the world-renowned Institute for Systems Biology. This collaboration brings together physicians and scientists in the fields of neurosurgery, neuropathology, systems biology, genomics and biostatistical analysis. Together they are determining how networks of genes and proteins interact in brain cancer to discover new targets for diagnostic tests and treatments.

In another partnership, the Ivy Center and the Allen Institute for Brain Science are creating a 3-D map of gene activity within brain tumors.  These maps can then be compared with maps of gene activity in normal brain tissue to identify which genes are malfunctioning in the cancer tissue. Once these genes are identified the goal is to develop diagnostics and treatments that target these malfunctioning genes.

All data from these projects are being made available online to researchers around the world for free.

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