Stories about: DIPG

One family, one researcher: How Mikey’s journey is fueling an attack on DIPG

Picture of Mikey on 11th birthday, shortly after his DIPG diagnosis
Mikey and his family at his 11th birthday party, just one week after he was diagnosed with DIPG, a devastating tumor in his brain stem. Since Mikey’s passing in 2008, his family has been committed to supporting DIPG research.

“It’s a brutal disease; there’s just no other way to describe DIPG,” says Steve Czech. “And what’s crazy is that there aren’t many treatment options because it’s such a rare, orphan disease.”

Czech’s son, Mikey, was diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) on Jan. 6, 2008. It was Mikey’s 11th birthday. The fast growing and difficult-to-treat brainstem tumors are diagnosed in approximately 300 children in the U.S. each year.

Sadly, the virtually incurable disease comes with a poor prognosis for most children. The location of DIPG tumors in the brainstem — which controls many of the body’s involuntary functions, such as breathing — has posed a huge challenge to successful treatment thus far.

“Typically, they give kids about nine months,” says Czech. “Our lives changed forever the day that Mikey was diagnosed.”

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Overturning dogma to open the black box of DIPG

pons DIPG brain tumor brainstem glioma

You can’t advance the care of a disease that you can’t study. And for 40 years, that was the case with a rare, uniformly fatal pediatric brain tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG.

DIPG isn’t like most brain tumors. Rather than forming a solid mass, it weaves itself among the nerve fibers of the pons—a structure in the brain stem that controls vital functions like breathing, blood pressure and heart rate—making it impossible to biopsy. At least, that’s been the dogma.

“DIPG is the only tumor that historically has not been biopsied, because it’s found in such a critical place in the brain,” says Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, director of the Brain Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, children with DIPG who underwent biopsy had multiple neurologic complications, so the dogma became ‘no biopsies.'”

As a result, research was stalled by a lack of available tumor tissue to study. To address this, Kieran and his colleagues Nalin Gupta, MD, and Michael Prados, MD, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, launched a new clinical trial of DIPG in 2012. The trial is leveraging advances in microsurgery and genomics to give researchers their first peek into the molecular nature of DIPGs.

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Challenging the dogma on deadly brain stem gliomas

Nestled in the pons (the red area above), the area that controls breathing, DIPG tumors have been impossible to biopsy and analyze for therapeutic insights. Until now. (MEXT Integrated Database Project/Wikimedia Commons)

Brain tumors can be very difficult to treat, but at least we know what to do about them. For years, a mix of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy has been used to treat brain tumors like medulloblastoma.

These treatments are fairly successful, but for a rare, almost always fatal tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), we haven’t had any success—in fact, we haven’t known where to start.

The problem has to do with where DIPGs are located: nestled among the nerves in a portion of the brain stem, the pons, that controls critical functions like our breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

“For 40 years, we lacked the neurosurgical techniques to biopsy DIPGs safely,” say Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, director of the Brain Tumor Program at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center (DF/CHCC). “In fact, one of the first lessons every oncologist is taught still is, ‘Don’t biopsy brain stem gliomas.’ The dogma was that the risk of severe or fatal damage was too great.” And because we couldn’t biopsy them, we couldn’t study them to learn what makes them tick.”

A lot can change in four decades. Techniques for operating on the brain have advanced considerably, as have the tools for probing tumors at the molecular level. So, looking to turn the dogma about DIPGs on its head, Kieran has launched a clinical trial that aims to use advanced surgical and diagnostic tools to target and individualize DIPG treatment.

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