New Advances That Are Changing Brain Cancer Treatment


Precision medicine is revolutionizing cancer treatment. Instead of using the same treatment for the same type of cancer, precision medicine tailors treatment to each individual. Precision medicine—also known as personalized medicine—takes into account someone’s genes, lifestyle and environment to find the most effective course of action for them.

“Ten years ago we diagnosed and treated cancer based on what part of the body it was in and what the cancer looked like under a microscope,” says James Snyder, D.O., a neuro-oncologist with Henry Ford Health System. “Now we're less concerned with what it looks like and more concerned with its intrinsic biology: how is the tumor growing in this individual? How can we stop this person’s biological pathway that's allowing the cancer to grow? Precision medicine categorizes cancer not by where it is but by the genetic makeup of the tumor itself.”

Many innovative treatments are in clinical trials to improve and extend the lives of those diagnosed with brain tumors--including glioblastoma, a notoriously difficult brain cancer to treat. Here, the advancements that are making waves in brain cancer treatment.


An avatar is a tumor sample that is taken from the patient and grown outside of them (in a mouse for example). This allows doctors to analyze the tumor and investigate different treatments to see what will be most effective to eliminate it.   

“While someone is undergoing treatment (and while we hope the current treatment is working) we have this model to see how the tumor cells are growing,” says Dr. Snyder. “We’re able to expose the person’s tumor to different types of medicine to see how it responds. We could treat someone based upon what we see in their avatar—it’s taking personalized medicine to another level.”

While in early research stages, tumor avatars are an area of excitement for the future.


“With many illnesses, your immune system attacks infected cells to defend your body,” says Ian Lee, M.D., a neurological surgeon with Henry Ford Health System. “But with cancer, somehow these tumor cells get past the body’s immune system detection. The immune system doesn’t know the cancer cells are harmful and lets the tumor grow. Brain tumors in particular are known for their ability to sneak past the immune system.”

Immunotherapy harnesses the strength of your immune system to defend itself against cancer. “In other cancers, we’ve had major breakthroughs with immunotherapy, so we’re hoping it can help those with brain tumors as well,” says Dr. Lee.

There are a variety of ways to teach the immune system that tumor cells are dangerous and attack them as such:

  • Create a vaccine using the patient’s tumor tissue. Take immune cells and part of the brain tumor outside of the body and mix them together to “educate” the immune system to go after the tumor.
  • Use viruses as an immunotherapy drug vehicle. “It’s really hard to get drugs into the brain—the body does a great job of trying to protect the brain,” says Dr. Lee. “A virus would essentially be used as a tool to engage the immune system. It would take away the isolation tumor cells have in that protective brain environment.”
  • Manipulate the body’s own inflammatory response to fight the tumor using checkpoint inhibitors (otherwise known as PDL-1 and PD-1 inhibitors). 
  • Use CAR T-cell therapy, which is in clinical trials for glioblastoma. "The patient's white blood cells are labeled with a tumor-specific marker, which then acts as a 'heat-seeking missile' to specifically target tumor cells," says Dr. Lee. 

5-ALA (Or “The Pink Drink”)

Known colloquially as the Pink Drink, 5-ALA is a drug that’s taken by mouth before surgery. It turns the brain tumor fluorescent pink under ultraviolet light so that the tumor cells are more visible, even those that are beyond detection to the naked eye. When the tumor fluoresces, surgeons can more easily differentiate healthy cells from cancer cells, so they can get rid of all of the tumor tissue and keep all of the healthy tissue.

“We are really hopeful that these technologies can change the outcome of brain cancer and even those diagnosed with glioblastoma,” says Dr. Lee. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’ve made incredible advancements within the last fifteen years. We are increasingly improving their quality of life.”

Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help. Visit to learn more.
Dr. James Snyder is a neurologist specializing in neuro-oncology at the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
Dr. Ian Lee is a neurological surgeon specializing in neuro-oncology at the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit. 


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