Francie and Tom Hiltz have witnessed the virulence of metastatic brain tumors not once, but twice.
One family member was treated in a clinical setting, without access to a clinical trial that might have made a difference. Another family member was treated in Cincinnati and elsewhere. “He was making some progress toward remission,” Mr. Hiltz recalled. “But when the cancer metastasized to his brain, his prognosis changed irrevocably, and he rapidly deteriorated.”
On Thursday, aided by the Hiltzes’ generosity and recognition that more research is desperately needed in the area of cancer that spreads to the brain, the University of Cincinnati announced the establishment of the Harold C. Schott Chair for Molecular Therapeutics. The endowed chair was established with a $2 million gift from the Harold C. Schott Foundation, of which Francie Schott Hiltz and L. Thomas Hiltz are trustees.
An additional $4.5 million committed by the UC College of Medicine and its Departments of Internal Medicine (Hematology-Oncology Division), Neurosurgery and Radiation Oncology—will enable development of the UC Brain Tumor Center Molecular Therapeutics Program, an interdisciplinary program dedicated to translational research and the tertiary care of patients with brain metastasis. The Molecular Therapeutics Program will wed the research and clinical talents of UCNI’s Brain Tumor Center, which is directed by Ronald Warnick, MD, Professor of Neurosurgery, and the rapidly evolving UC Cancer Institute, directed by George Atweh, MD, Professor of Hematology-Oncology.
The new molecular therapeutics program will allow UC, over the next 18 months, to build a subspecialized research team that will collaborate with the existing multidisciplinary brain tumor clinicians and surgeons to address the problem of brain metastases through translational research and original clinical trials.
“The endowed Harold C. Schott Chair will enable us to recruit a nationally recognized researcher with a track record in the study of molecular mechanisms of brain metastasis,” Dr. Warnick said. “Two additional researchers will be recruited to the research team and will focus on areas of highest potential for translation from bench to bedside.”
At a celebratory launch of the program Thursday at UC’s Vontz Center, Olivier Rixe, MD, PhD, Director of UC’s Experimental Drug Trials Program, said that patients with brain metastases have been excluded from most of the world’s clinical trials that test new cancer therapies. “We hope to develop new clinical trials at UC,” he said, “and we will not exclude patients with metastatic disease from Phase 1 or Phase 2 studies. We will also develop specific trials for patients with brain metastases and test new drugs in this context.”
“The next frontier is basic and translational science,” Dr. Atweh said. “The catalyst for this is the gift we’re celebrating today. This challenges us to take the Brain Tumor Center to the next level and to make it one of the best in the country. This is the first major initiative, and we’re looking to the future with a lot of excitement.”
Dr. Warnick said the new program will target perplexing and unanswered questions about metastatic tumors, which develop in 30 percent of cancer patients. “For example, why is it that some tumors, like melanoma, will go to the brain 70 percent of the time, whereas some cancers, such as ovarian, will metastasize maybe 2 percent of the time,” he asked. “And what about lung cancer patients, who are often first diagnosed with a brain metastasis, whereas patients with breast cancer may develop brain metastasis 5, 10 or even 15 years later.
“With all of these unanswered questions, the purpose of UC Brain Tumor Center Molecular Therapeutics Program is to focus on these issues, and others, with the primary goal of developing new therapies for these patients and – if I may be so bold – to ultimately prevent brain metastases from happening. And I think that’s possible. If we can intervene early enough in the process, if we can do the right kind of research, then we can prevent these from happening in the first place. I think that is the Holy Grail, and I think we can do it.”
The extraordinary nature of the mission has energized the UC Brain Tumor Center team. John M. Tew, MD, Clinical Director of UCNI, noted that, in his 40-plus years at UC, “This is as exciting a time as I’ve seen.” Dr. Rixe, looking directly at Mr. and Mrs. Hiltz, made this promise: “It is very difficult, but we are excited and will do our best every day.”
— Cindy Starr