UT-Southwestern sees breakthrough in tracking brain cancer

Brain Surgery

Scientists at UT Southwestern’s Simmons Cancer Center and Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute have discovered a way to track a common type of brain cancer.

Within a week of treatment, doctors know whether they’re on track or not.

Brent and Jennalee Trammel are college sweethearts.

“One of my best friends introduced us,” said Jennalee.

Three boys later, the couple say they have a lot to be thankful for despite a setback in 2010.

“Life has always been great with us,” said Brent. “In 2010, I was calling each kid by the wrong name, I was slurring words together.”

Brent was diagnosed with a type of brain cancer. The tumor was in his left temporal lobe.

“He’s very sarcastic and funny and at the beginning he didn't understand humor,” said Jennalee, his wife of now 24 years. “He ate totally differently… it was like living with somebody very different."

Doctors performed brain surgery in 2010. Three years later, Brent underwent a total of 17 months of chemotherapy, plus radiation. 

At the same time, researchers at UT Southwestern were on the brink of a breakthrough. In addition to imaging from MRIs, they discovered a new way to identify a chemical within tumor cells.

“Instead of getting the picture, you're going to get a chemical signature,” said Dr. Elizabeth Maher, pointing to a split screen with two images: one traditional MRI scan, another jagged yellow line. 

Each peak in that line corresponds with a different chemical. Scientists connected this peak to a chemical called 2HG.

"The interesting thing is that 2HG accumulates in high concentrations inside the cells, and it's only in tumor cells- not in normal cells,” said Dr. Maher.

That means Maher can monitor when the 2HG chemical in Brent’s tumor cells are higher, lower, responding to treatment or dormant.

“For me, this [chemical signature] is much more helpful because this [image] may not change with our treatment, but this [peak] may go completely away,” Maher said.

Tracking the chemical in Brent’s tumor cells has helped to determine when he needs to come back for scans or treatment.

“It either confirms that everything's going smoothly or it tells me we may need to look at doing something different,” said Brent.

That allows him to live life as normally as possible in the meantime with his wife and his boys.

“Every day is a new exciting day for me, no matter what,” he said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 152,000 people are living with brain and nervous system cancers in the United States.

The overall 5-year survival rate is 33.8 percent. Brent has already beat that, which he credits partly to this incredible research.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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