Treating Brain Tumors Subject of UT Science Forum

KNOXVILLE — Imagine being able to turn off a fatal disease like you would the lights in your home. Although the new drugs are still in clinical trials, UT professor Mahlon Johnson, said researchers are nearing the possibility of being able to turn growing brain tumors off.

Johnson, a professor of pathology at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine, will share these advances at the final UT Science Forum this Friday with his lecture, “Brain Tumors — Which Switches Are Flipped and Which Can Be Turned Off?”

“People understand now that growth signaling of these tumors begins with a sequence of switches that are kind of flipped to get the cells to start proliferating,” said Johnson. “There are a lot of complex interactions of these signaling pathways that stimulate cells to grow or get the cell engines going. A lot of research is trying to identify which ones are on and which ones aren’t so you can apply drugs to turn them off again.”

These “switches” are actually brain enzymes called kinases, Johnson said. The ongoing research is currently trying to identify drugs that can stop these enzymes and, in effect, stop the growth of the tumors, making it easier for physicians to treat them. He said this research is of extreme importance because brain tumors remain among the most deadly types of cancer.

“Currently there are very few viable chemotherapies for (brain tumors),” he said. “So, the majority of brain tumors in adults are invariably fatal.”

Johnson said a few of the drugs have been approved, while the majority of them are still being tested. But he is confident the drugs will be in use very soon.

“There is a high potential once we can figure out which switches are flipped to apply new drugs right away,” he said. “This will be an enormous boon to people who are suffering tremendously.

Johnson said he hopes the lecture will give attendees a new awareness about brain tumors and perhaps inspire those who have been touched by the disease.

“I hope they take an awareness of the possibilities that new therapies are coming along,” he said. “There have been many periods in history where things have turned around in a matter of a year or two when things that were fatal became treatable. That’s always good for people to know when they think they are down for the count.”

The UT Science Forum is a weekly, non-technical lecture and discussion designed to help others better understand research across many disciplines. It is held every Friday at noon in Thompson-Boling Arena in dining rooms C and D. Attendees may bring their own lunch or purchase it at the arena. Each presentation should last around 40 minutes followed by a question and answer session.

Anyone interested in suggesting a speaker or volunteering to present a lecture during the 2006-2007 UT Science Forum series should contact program chairman Mark Littmann at 865-974-8156 or littmann@utk.edu