Collaboration for a Cure

Collaboration for a Cure

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American Brain Tumor Association Grants

When brain tumor researchers get together in Chicago each year, they’re not Googling the hottest new restaurant in the West Loop or trying to get a ticket to Hamilton.

In fact, they meet at a hotel near the airport to make flying in and out as easy as possible. “It’s a simple but impactful experience,” says Justin Lathia, PhD, an associate professor and researcher in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the Lerner Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic who also served as a co-chair of the 2018 ABTA Alumni Research Network (AARN) meeting.

A scientist who specializes in how resistant brain tumor cells integrate stem cell pathways, Lathia received his first post-doctoral grant from the American Brain Tumor Association and feels gratitude not only for its support of his work in the early days, but the support which is given to patients struggling with the disease.

“There is nothing else like this,” Lathia says of the chance for researchers in the brain tumor field to get together to talk about not only what they’re working on but the chance to collaborate on nitty-gritty things such as how to manage a lab, human resources issues and how to apply for grants. “It keeps us engaged in the brain tumor community and allows us to focus on next-generation brain tumor researchers.”

Talking with others who face the exact same challenges is an experience that is invaluable, according to Lathia, noting as a scientist you don’t often get that opportunity.

As far as the grants that go to those just starting their careers, Lathia says there is no way he can describe how much that funding means. “It’s a way to galvanize investigators early on in their research careers when they are getting ready to transition to independence.”

As a PhD student, he became interested in how stem cells built the brain and responded to injury. “It turns out, a lot of these signals are also altered in brain tumors and towards the end of my PhD, many exciting findings were describing cancer stem cells. I immediately was attracted to this field.”

Lathia, who studied at the University of Cambridge and did post-doctoral work at Duke University, has received lots of grants since then, including from the National Institute of Health (NIH), Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, the American Cancer Society and VeloSano. He recently was awarded the inaugural “Rising Star” Award at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute for scientists in their first 10 years of independent research.

The two main challenges in the brain tumor field are the complexity and lethality of the disease which he says is limiting in terms of finding truly representative models and the rarity of brain tumors compared with other diseases.

As director of the Lathia Lab at the Cleveland Clinic, he and his team are working to figure out how to best combat glioblastomas – the lethal tumor that resulted in the deaths of John McCain and Ted Kennedy. “It is devastating. No matter what you throw at it, we don’t seem to move the needle.”

While some might get discouraged or depressed, Lathia said brain tumor researchers are highly motivated every day to find treatments that not only prolong life but will one day eradicate these insidious tumors.