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Making Brain Surgery Safer: New Technology Helping Treat Brain Tumors at Penn


doctor looking at brain tumor scan

Roughly 23,880 malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord will be diagnosed in 2018, and around 16,830 people will die, according to the American Cancer Society. 
With numbers like these, there is continuous need for advancements in the detection and treatment of brain tumors both malignant and benign.

The Penn Brain Tumor Center remains on the forefront of brain tumor surgery and brain tumor research, performing the most surgeries in Pennsylvania every year, incorporating the most cutting-edge technologies during the treatment process, and developing the freshest research and most promising cancer drugs through our many clinical trials.

Among the many developments in brain tumor surgery and other treatment approaches are new advanced imaging technologies (including fiber-guided tractography and TumorGlow®), and, perhaps most promising of all, our CAR-T cell therapy clinical trials. 

Brain Mapping: New Advancements in Neuroimaging Technology 

When it comes to malignant brain tumors or more problematic benign brain tumors, surgery is often the most essential treatment approach—and the Penn Brain Tumor Center performs the most brain tumor surgeries in the entire state. 

But there is no area of the human anatomy more complex—or more fragile—than the human brain, and even the most experienced neurosurgeon needs some help navigating the intricate system of nerves and tissues that comprise that organ.

That’s where Penn’s cutting-edge advanced brain imaging tools come in. Several of the most recent neuroimaging technologies are being used to make brain tumor surgery at Penn safer and more precise. Invasive surgical procedures like awake craniotomies and tumor resections benefit greatly from new techniques like nerve fiber-guided tractography and TumorGlow®.

Fiber-guided tractography: A technique that uses diffusion MRI to project a 3D model of the brain’s nerve tracts, fiber-guided tractography helps neurosurgeons avoid language and motor areas of the brain when removing difficult tumors. Tractography and other forms of brain mapping afford neurosurgeons strikingly colorful and highly detailed maps of the wiring of the patient’s brain. Such innovative visual tools make an individual’s brain more navigable—and they make brain tumor surgery more precise and streamlined.

TumorGlow®: Surgical resection—whether it’s a full or partial resection—of a brain tumor is now being aided by TumorGlow®, a new form of intraoperative molecular imaging (IMI) that uses a fluorescent dye that causes cancerous cells to glow during surgery. How does it work? Hours before surgery, the patient receives an intravenous fluorescent dye which moves through the patient’s system in and into the brain. Later, during surgery, the tumors located by the dye take on a bright neon hue when exposed to infrared lights. The malignant tissues therefore become more clearly identifiable, ensuring that neurosurgeons identify and remove as much of the tumor as possible. TumorGlow® is a great and safe alternative to ionizing radiation. Although it’s not yet FDA approved, TumorGlow® clinical trials are now enrolling. What’s more, the Brain Tumorsat Penn has the most experience with fluorescence-guided surgeries in the world.

CAR-T Cell Therapy: A Game Changer in Brain Tumor Treatment

Another way to make brain surgery safer? Find less invasive means to fight cancer.

Immunotherapy (or CAR-T cell therapy) is seen by many Penn experts as the future of brain tumor treatment, and, though it’s still in clinical trials for aggressive cancers like glioblastoma, it’s no overstatement to say the results have been beyond promising.

This new and developing form of cancer therapy recruits your immune system in the fight against brain tumors. As a cancer develops in the body, it suppresses immune responses, which means the T-cells—the cells that act on behalf of the immune system—fail to activate in the presence of cancer cells. The immune system is stymied and significantly less effective.

CAR-T cell therapy, reprograms those immune cells and empowers them to identify and fight cancer cells. Combining CAR-T cell therapy with more traditional forms of cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, could lead to considerable progress in the fight against even the most aggressive brain tumors. There is still much research to do on the CAR-T cell therapy front, and the treatment is still in the clinical trial phase, but Penn remains a national leader in immunotherapy work.

Learn more about the multi-faceted and collaborative team at the Penn Brain Tumor Center, or request an appointment to speak with one our highly experienced medical experts.

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