The Neuroscientist With a Bachelor's Degree
Date: June 1, 2009
When Betty Tyler joined the Department of Neurosurgery as a laboratory technician in 1990, she wanted to do challenging research and to know that the product of her labors could readily be used to help patients. She got her wish.
For the past 19 years, Tyler has worked in the lab of Neurosurgery Director Henry Brem, seeking new treatments for brain tumors, including glioma, one of the most intractable forms of cancer. And, little by little, her work has truly helped patients.
Numerous hurdles confront researchers in their search for brain cancer treatments. First, there’s the infamous blood-brain barrier, the protective mechanism that shields the brain from toxins and other harm, but also means that scientists can’t rely on the bloodstream to deliver brain cancer drugs. Then there is the extremely delicate nature of the brain. An experimental drug might do an extraordinary job of destroying brain tumor cells but kill healthy brain cells as well—and with them, a vital function such as language or vision.
To circumvent the blood-brain barrier, Brem developed a drug-delivery device called the Gliadel wafer. Implanted into the brain during surgery, the dime-size wafer gradually releases a cancer-fighting drug. In the lab, Tyler helped to fine-tune and test Gliadel in animal studies, while Brem applied her findings in patients. Several studies have shown that Gliadel extends patients’ lives by several months and increases the percentage of longer-term survivors.
Hoping to do even better, Tyler and Brem then began examining whether adding a second drug might improve their results. One drug they’ve studied is temozolomide (TMZ). In a recent study, Brem and colleagues in neurosurgery and oncology reported that glioma patients receiving a combination of oral TMZ, Gliadel and radiation therapy lived an average of twice as long as patients receiving only Gliadel and radiation. Tyler is thrilled by these results. “It’s very rewarding to see that what you do in the lab can help to improve a person’s life,” she says.
As the team’s research has advanced, so has Tyler’s career. She is now the principal investigator on a study funded by the American Cancer Society that extends her research on TMZ. And in 2005, Tyler, whose highest degree is a B.A., became an assistant professor—a rare accomplishment for a scientist without a Ph.D., but a well-deserved one, says Brem. “When she first came on board, I saw that she was very bright, very analytical,” he says. “She’s become recognized as a great teacher and mentor to Hopkins medical students and fellows.”