New Help to Broaden Meningioma Study
Date: January 3, 2010
Meningiomas, tumors that grow on the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord—are the most common primary brain tumors.
They’re also among the least studied, says Gregory Riggins, a professor of neurosurgery and oncology, probably because most of them are benign. The consequence, he says, is that scientists— and funding agencies—tend to focus more on curing the more aggressive brain cancers.
Still, a small percent of the time, meningiomas are malignant. And, that said, even benign tumors can pose a health threat. Yet because researchers haven’t found effective chemotherapy for meningiomas, treatment options for those patients are limited to surgery and radiation.
Leonard and Phyllis Attman hope to change that track record.
Last year, the couple made a generous donation to the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurosurgery to help support Riggins’ and others’ meningioma research after personal experience led them to take on the meningioma project.
Twenty years ago, after Phyllis Attman suffered a mild head injury, her CT scans showed no signs of trauma. They did, however, reveal a small, benign meningioma. While the tumor presented no immediate health problem, her doctors recommended monitoring its growth every few years. Five years later, when a scan showed significant growth, Attman readily followed her doctor’s recommendation to have the tumor surgically removed.
In an unusual twist about a year ago, the Attmans’ daughter, Wende, was diagnosed with a meningioma and referred to Hopkins neurosurgeon Henry Brem. Because her tumor had grown in a region that significantly raised the risk of stroke, Wende followed Brem’s recommendation of immediate surgery to remove it.
Fortunately, Leonard Attman reports, both his wife and daughter are now doing well. But his family’s experience prompted him to wonder who else might be at risk for meningioma and what research might benefit them. He asked Brem: Is there anything I can do to help?
I’ve always believed,” Attman explains, “that you’re here to make the world a better place.”
At their meeting, Brem described a therapy-oriented project planned in Riggins’ lab. All it lacked was funding, so the Attmans stepped in.
“Our group is one of the few teams searching for drug treatments for meningioma,”says Riggins. “Until now,”
he adds, “the research has been a trial and error of drugs available for other types of tumors.”
Riggins and research associate Gilson Baia are taking a basic approach, studying molecular pathways that likely lead to meningioma. They’ve started by screening large libraries of candidate drugs to find ones that target those pathways. Although the work is in its early stages, says Baia, “We’ve gotten a few interesting hits on the first screen.”
The researchers also have other projects in mind. One involves identifying genes that heighten the chance of a meningioma. Scientists have observed other examples of “familial clustering” of the tumors as occurred in the Attman family. Studying those families’ DNA could flush out the mutations that raise the risk.
Riggins and his colleagues feel strongly that the gains they make, thanks to the Attman’s gift, will help pull in further support and hasten therapy. “These funds,” he says, “are seed money for work in an area that’s unfortunately very much underserved.”
To make a gift to the Department of Neurosurgery, please call 410-516-6234.