An ependymoma is a cancerous tumor that emerges in the brain or anywhere along the spine, from the neck all the way down to the lower back. These tiny tumors take shape in cells found in the spinal cord or the brain’s ventricles, cavities that contain fluid responsible for cushioning our brain and preventing injury.
Ependymomas tend to start out very small and grow slowly over time – sometimes many years – meaning they can be hard to catch. Early symptoms range from seizures to headaches and blurry vision. Because there are many other conditions with these same symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose ependymomas, especially in kids, who may have trouble explaining how the issue affects them.
Dr. Kohanbash’s St. Baldrick’s grant is supported by a Hero Fund in memory of Henry Cermak, who passed away in 2008 after a long, 2-year fight that included many surgeries, chemo regimens, and 93 rounds of radiation.
And that’s a big problem, as about 1 in 3 children with ependymomas have yet to reach their third birthday. Although anyone can develop ependymomas, for the most part this condition affects two groups of people: older adults and toddlers. Ependymomas represent the third most common form of brain tumor in kids.
Using immunotherapy to target tumors
But there’s hope, thanks to the work of Dr. Gary Kohanbash, a neuro-oncology researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
As a St. Baldrick’s Scholar, Dr. Kohanbash is currently studying ependymomas with a specific focus on using immunotherapy – a type of treatment designed to help improve our body’s natural defenses – to help kids fight back against these cancerous tumors.
New vaccine shows huge potential
Since he was awarded a grant by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in late 2017, Dr. Kohanbash has made significant strides in his research. In fact, his team is developing a vaccine that has the potential to help a child’s immune system target the cancer cells that make up ependymomas.
Dr. Kohanbash’s goal is to refine the vaccine to the point where it will only attack cancer cells, leaving healthy cells alone. Currently, Dr. Kohanbash and his team are testing drugs that may be able to boost the vaccine’s chances of doing just that.
Looking ahead, Dr. Kohanbash said he’s eager to take his treatment from the laboratory to real-world scenarios where it can help kids.
“I’m most excited about finishing the laboratory work,” Dr. Kohanbash said. “Then I’ll work with the doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and at other children’s hospitals around the country to test these safe and promising treatments.”
Building a “giant army of cancer fighters”
But that’s not all Dr. Kohanbash is excited about. He’s also laser-focused on finding a way to help a child’s T-cells – a type of cell that plays a critical role in immunity – get better at fighting the exact kind of cancer that child has.
“Once we use our technology to change and improve a few T-cells, we can grow many millions of T-cells,” Dr. Kohanbash said. “Then we can inject this giant army of cancer fighters back into the kid with cancer.”
And that’s definitely worth getting excited about.