Clark C. Chen, MD, has dedicated his life to fighting and treating brain cancer.
A renowned neurosurgeon and brain researcher, Chen joined University of Minnesota Health this fall to help advance patient care for brain cancer by using novel therapeutic and surgical approaches. He is also serving as the department chair for the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Neurosurgery.
“Our job is to offer hope where the odds seem to be overwhelming and use our resources to provide everything we can to our patients,” he said. “My mission is to alleviate, to comfort and ultimately to cure.”
We talked with Chen about his unending effort to fight brain cancer, why he came to Minnesota and how his research will impact patients.
Why have you spent so much of your life researching and treating brain tumors, especially glioblastomas?
Brain cancer is a deadly disease. If you’re afflicted with brain cancer, your life expectancy is generally less than two years. Patients with this disease have very few treatment options. There is only one FDA-approved therapy, temozolomide, a drug that kills brain tumor cells by damaging the cancer cell DNA. However, the tumor-killing effects of this drug are modest at best. In addition, many chemotherapies tested to date have failed to meaningfully improve the survival of brain tumor patients. We really have to change the way we treat brain cancer, which means changing how we fundamentally think about the disease. I’m determined to discover ways to prolong life and increase the quality of life for brain cancer patients. This is my passion. This is my mission in life.
You’re working on a novel clinical approach to treating brain tumors. Can you tell us about that?
The brain is so important to the human body that we have evolved a protective barrier, called a blood-brain barrier, that prevents toxins from getting into the brain. Unfortunately, this barrier also prevents chemotherapy drugs from getting through to the brain tumor. We’re developing ways to deliver new treatments directly to the brain during surgery, which will allow us to bypass the barrier. Working collaboratively, we have also developed viruses that will selectively destroy brain tumors and prompt an additional helpful immune response from the brain. In doing so, we’re effectively teaching the body how to fight the tumor, which should reduce the need for chemotherapy in the future.
What do you hope your work can accomplish?
By using specially-developed viruses to kill tumors, we can minimize the side effects to the healthy brain and maximize a patient’s chance of survival—while optimizing their quality of life during treatment. Treating cancer is like playing chess. Every new therapy we use is a move against cancer. For every one of our moves, cancer adjusts and creates a counter-move. The virus we developed is capable of educating our immune system to fight cancer, which is a significant step forward. Despite the promises of this approach, we still need to recognize that all therapies will inevitably create resistance. Chess games cannot be won using only a single tactic. For that reason, the research community will continually need to advance new therapies against brain cancer.
You’re a renowned neurosurgeon. Why did you choose University of Minnesota Health?
University of Minnesota Health is an extraordinary organization with exceptionally talented clinicians and scientists who are dedicated to improving the care of patients afflicted with disease in which treatment options are limited, such as brain cancer. The neurosurgery department at the University of Minnesota Medical School
has a tremendous legacy. The giants of neurosurgery who defined our field were trained here. That legacy inspires me. I look forward to working with a team of dedicated and brilliant neurosurgeons to advance our mission of discovery for the betterment of humanity.
What’s your vision for the future of neurosurgery at University of Minnesota Health?
The diseases that we treat as neurosurgeons erode the essence of who we are. Continued brain tumor growth, for instance, eventually destroys our capacity to speak, to think, to move and to feel. In my opinion, no other diseases so drastically affect our identities as human beings. As a team, we will continue to provide the best possible patient care, and we will work tirelessly to discover the next generation of treatments.