What Causes Brain Tumors? Ohio Brain Tumor Research Study Seeks Answers

Doctor performing surgery

Christopher McPherson, MD performing a transsphenoidal removal of a pituitary tumor in the Hitachi intraoperative MRI suite at University Hospita, Cincinnati, Ohio.

What causes a cell or cells in the brain to go awry and develop into a tumor? If only we knew, scientists might be able to create better treatments. Or, better yet, doctors might be able to prevent brain tumors from growing in the first place.

Researchers at the UC Brain Tumor Center are hoping that the Ohio Brain Tumor Research Study will help provide some answers to the fundamental question of why brain tumors develop. Christopher McPherson, MD, Director of the Division of Surgical Neuro-Oncology in the Department of Neurosurgery and principal investigator in UC’s portion of the Ohio Brain Tumor Research Study, offered insights into the nature of the study and what researchers hope to accomplish.

Q: Which research institutions are involved in this study? A: The Ohio Brain Tumor Research Study is a joint venture of the four brain tumor centers in Ohio:

  • the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center at Case Western Reserve University and the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • the Cleveland Clinic Foundation
  • Ohio State University
  • and the Brain Tumor Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute.

Q: What is the research study’s objective? A:  The study is looking at risk factors for brain tumors. We want to know what causes them. Although a few things are known to cause brain tumors – radiation, for example, and rare genetic syndromes – we haven’t been able to pinpoint other risk factors. When I see patients, usually the first thing they ask is, “How did I get this?”

We also are hoping to sharpen our ability to diagnose the more than 125 different brain tumor subtypes. Brain tumors, in addition to being different from each other, are not always uniform. For example, the cells in one area of a tumor can have greater malignancy than cells in another part of the tumor. If we can diagnose a brain tumor by its genetic signature rather than by its history or how it appears under a microscope, we may be able to improve treatments and step up prevention.

Q: How are researchers gathering their data? A: This research study is open to people who have been newly diagnosed with a primary malignant or benign brain tumor – a tumor that has originated in the brain. Once a patient has enrolled in the study, we will collect biological samples and information about how the patient lives and any environmental exposures he or she may have had. We will also review their medical history.

Study participants initially go through a 30- to 45-minute telephone interview. During that phone call, they are asked questions related to many different risk factors, such as where they live, their family history, their diet and lifestyle, and environmental exposures. That information is then directly paired with the individual’s genetics, which have been derived from tissue and blood samples. We’re trying to find genetic markers that could be central to identifying risk for a brain tumor or treating it. Study participants also are asked to participate in follow-up phone calls.

Q: What kind of biological samples are acquired? A:  During an office visit, a saliva sample is taken from the patient’s cheek with a swab, and a blood sample is drawn. During a biopsy or surgery to remove the tumor, a sample of the tumor is also collected.

Q: What will become of the tissue sample? A: The tissue samples will be stored in a tissue bank that will serve as a resource for all of the Ohio centers. The tissue will be saved so that it can be used in future research projects and as new questions about brain tumors arise.

Q: This research study sounds unique. Are there others like it in other states? A: There are other epidemiology consortiums nationwide, but I am not aware of any other states that have anything like this.

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