Q&A with Brain Tumor Expert Stephen Bagley, MD

Portrait of Dr. Stephen Bagley in his white coat.

Stephen Bagley, MD, MSCE works as a medical oncologist and treats brain tumor and brain cancer patients. As a physician on the Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Program team, he focuses clinically on malignancies in the central nervous system (CNS) and conducts research on alternate approaches to brain tumor treatment and testing.

For Dr. Bagley, every visit in the clinic is a big moment in a patient’s life. For that very reason, he is not afraid of being vulnerable around his patients. He is a firm believer that expressing empathy toward his patients is critical to building a trusting relationship.

Read our interview with Dr. Bagley below to learn more about his work, motivations and vision for the future of Neuro-Oncology.

Tell us more about your work.

I have two main areas of focus. One is developing clinical trials in glioblastoma (GBM), the most common primary malignant brain tumor in adults. We are constantly looking toward more effective therapies.

My other focus is on using blood-based biomarkers, rather than invasive brain biopsy, to better understand resistance mechanisms, match patients with novel therapies in clinical trial, and improve outcomes for people with GBM.

You trained at Penn. Share your experience and what inspired you to focus on brain cancer.

I had a fantastic training experience here, starting in medical school. Although I started out in lung cancer during my fellowship, Penn is full of opportunities, and an opening on the Neuro-Oncology team inspired me to switch tracks to explore a disease type that is very underserved and under-researched.

I spent the last year of my fellowship learning about brain tumors, not only in the research lab, but also by being deeply involved with our patients’ care. For me, staying at Penn in such a dynamic learning environment was the most important thing.

What is your vision for the future of Neuro-Oncology?

My ultimate vision is that, during the course of my career, GBM will stop being such a devastating diagnosis and will no longer be uniformly fatal. If we can turn GBM into a disease that can be managed long-term, that would be remarkable.

I truly believe in the translation of immunotherapy to GBM, and I am thrilled to be at a place like Penn that is leading the way in this research. Harnessing the body’s immune system to treat this type of tumor is our best chance for effective, long-term remissions.

Who has been your most influential mentor?

Dr. Arati Desai. She’s taught me everything I know about brain tumors — not just the oncologic care, but also managing patients and their families during incredibly difficult times, including the cognitive dysfunction and declines in neurological function that often occur.

She taught me that you’re not just treating the patient, you’re also treating the family and their entire situation. I’ve really tried to follow her by example.

It’s not easy helping people while they are faced with cancer. How do you stay motivated? What keeps you going?

As a neuro-oncologist, witnessing the loss of personality and independence in my patients really motivates me to improve their quality of life. Seeing what that loss does to them is extremely difficult to watch. Particularly when I see younger patients in their 20s and 30s, I see myself, my family, and my friends. My patients inspire me to find them better options to fight.

What do you do in your spare time?

My favorite thing in the world is spending time with my 20-month-old daughter, Julia. She helps me find an important balance in my life. My wife and I also just bought a house, so I’ve been spending some time on improvement projects — and learning on the fly through YouTube!

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