Neurosurgery discoversThe UAB Department of Neurosurgery celebrated World Brain Day in July through remembering several moments of discovery made possible by ongoing research efforts in the department. Below are several stories of discovery that showcase the worldwide talent and cutting-edge technology that comprises the UAB Department of Neurosurgery.


Brain Tumor Therapy is Going to the Dogs 

People share many things with the dogs in their lives. Unfortunately, that can include a tendency to develop brain tumors. Dogs and humans are among the few species that spontaneously develop naturally occurring brain tumors. Those tumors have a lot in common, too, which has led scientists in the Department of Neurosurgery to wonder whether studying tumors in dogs will help treat humans, and whether studying tumors in humans will help treat man’s best friend.

“Brain tumors in dogs and humans are remarkably similar,” says M. Renee Chambers, DVM, M.D., a veterinarian as well as a neurosurgeon in the UAB Department of Neurosurgery. “They share similar rates of incidence and mortality, and they share similar symptoms such as seizures, which is often the first symptom observed in both humans and dogs. Treatment is very much the same, too, with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy being the standard of care.”

Because of the similarities, new therapies being developed for humans might work on dogs. To that end, UAB is partnering with veterinary schools to conduct the first immunotherapy study for brain tumors in pet dogs using an oncolytic herpes simplex virus known as M032. M032 was developed at UAB by neurosurgeon James Markert, M.D., MPH, who has been studying viral therapies for brain tumors for more than 25 years. M032 is a second-generation virus, following on the heels of a previously genetically engineered virus known as G207.

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Viral Immunotherapy for Brain Tumors in Children Shows Promise

A viral immunotherapy using a herpes virus to treat brain tumors has been shown to be safe and well-tolerated in apediatric study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Children’s of Alabama. The findings, presented in July 2018 at the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology in Denver, also showed preliminary evidence of effectiveness in killing malignant tumor cells.

The virus, known as G207, is derived from the herpes virus responsible for cold sores. The virus is genetically altered so that it infects only tumor cells. When infused into a malignant brain tumor, the virus enters the tumor cells and replicates. This kills the cell and releases the virus’ progeny to hunt for other tumor cells. Additionally, the virus induces a strong immune response from the body’s immune system, which can attack the tumor.

The use of genetically engineered oncolytic viruses, which selectively kill cancer cells as a treatment for brain tumors and other cancers, is the product of more than 20 years of research at UAB by James Markert, M.D., MPH, chair of the UAB Department of Neurosurgery and a senior scientist at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. The concept of engineering such viruses to also express proteins to further stimulate an antitumor immune response was first described in the literature in 2001 by Dr. Markert and colleagues.

A second-generation virus, called M032, has been developed by Dr. Markert and collaborators Yancey Gillespie, Ph.D., professor of neurosurgery, and Richard Whitley, M.D., distinguished professor of pediatric infectious disease, and is in clinical trials at UAB in adults with glioblastoma, the most deadly of primary brain tumors.

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$2 Million Investment Boosts UAB Biomedical Spinoff

A $2 million investment is the latest step forward for the biomedical startup CNine Biosolutions LLC, which is headed by former UAB postdoctoral fellow Theresa Schein, Ph.D., and retired UAB microbiology professor Scott Barnum, Ph.D. The funding comes from a Denver-based angel investor group. The two entrepreneurs are using technology they developed at UAB to create a rapid and simple test to distinguish bacterial meningitis from meningitis caused by viral infections. The technology is licensed from the patent holder, UAB.

The existing gold standard to detect bacterial meningitis gives 10-30 percent false negatives, and its laboratory tests – along with a one- or two-day hospitalization for the patient – are expensive, Schein and Barnum say. The company was formed on paper in 2013 and in 2015 received $250,000 in seed funding from the Children’s of Alabama Impact Fund, a special donor fund supported by the community for leading-edge initiatives. At Children’s, Schein and Barnum worked with James Johnston Jr., M.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Neurosurgery’s Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery. Dr. Johnston treats patients at Children’s of Alabama and consults with CNine as chief medical officer.

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Brain Tumors: Still Devastating, but Treatment Has Come a Long Way

A brain tumor was the furthest thing from Kathy English’s mind when she walked into a neurologist’s office in 2003. She’d had some uncontrolled sinus issues, so her doctors ordered a variety of tests, including an MRI. When she arrived to get the MRI results, the neurologist hadn’t yet looked at the results.

“He said we’d look at them together,” English recalls. “As he looked over the scan, he pointed out a small abnormality, a tumor which he described as a meningioma. Then he saw another one. And another. By this time, I was getting pretty worried. Ultimately, he found 12, and now I was really worried.”

The neurologist immediately referred English to neurosurgeon James Markert, M.D., MPH, an internationally renowned brain tumor expert who chairs the UAB Department of Neurosurgery. Dr. Markert says meningiomas are relatively rare but certainly not unheard of. He followed English for several years, and when one of the tumors began to grow, he surgically removed it, along with eight others that were easily accessible. Two more were later eliminated through a gamma knife radiation procedure. Markert continues to monitor the others. Through it all, English never had any symptoms, other than a bucket-full of anxiety.

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