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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Craig Horbinski, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pathology and Neurological Surgery

Craig Horbinski, MD, PhD

Craig Horbinski, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pathologyand Neurological Surgery, is not just a physician, scientist and expert on brain tumors. He’s also a minor Twitter celebrity.

In 2017, a colleague recommended Horbinski join the micro-blogging website to network and broadcast his research to a wider audience. It turns out, posting pathology slides and asking other users to guess the diagnosis was popular.

However, Horbinski is busy with much more than his Twitter account: He has an active clinical practice in neuropathology, with a focus on molecular diagnostics. He’s authored over 100 peer-reviewed publications, is the principal investigator of his own NIH-funded research lab, directs the research histology core for the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, serves as director of Northwestern’s Nervous System Tumor Bank and leads the Biospecimen Core in the new NCI P50 Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant focusing on brain tumors.

What are your research interests?

My primary research focus is on gliomas, the most common tumor arising within the brains of adults. Most of these tumors are unfortunately incurable, although some subtypes are less malignant than others.

Within gliomas, I’ve been studying why tumors with a mutation in a gene called IDH1 are less aggressive than tumors without that mutation. I am also developing a new line of research into meningiomas, another common tumor that arises in the membranes covering the brain. Although most meningioma patients have better outcomes than glioma patients, some meningiomas can be quite aggressive — recurring and invading the brain despite repeated surgery and radiation — and are terribly debilitating.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?

I’m hoping we can come up with better ways of managing the care of patients with gliomas, by learning why some are more aggressive than others. For meningiomas, currently all we have to offer are surgery and radiation. It would be great to come up with another treatment option for those tumors.

What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus (and beyond)?

As the director of the Nervous System Tumor Bank at Northwestern, I’m heavily involved in many projects, both at Northwestern and elsewhere. We collect a lot of common and rare brain tumors using strict quality control, and have a full-service histopathology research lab.

In the last three years, we’ve supported over 80 projects from nearly 30 investigators and supplied anonymized biospecimens for several large-scale, multi-institutional endeavors. Skills in bio-banking and advanced tissue-based analysis are relatively scarce commodities in cancer research, so I’m always glad to help.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

Originally, I was drawn to the neurosciences, specifically neurodegeneration. But as I progressed through my neuropathology training at the University of Pittsburgh, I became more fascinated with gliomas.

At the time, molecular diagnostics was growing as a newer field. It was remarkable how two different tumors, looking virtually identical under the microscope, could produce such radically different patient outcomes because their genotypes were different. And, because most brain tumor outcomes aren’t great, it seemed like an area ripe for improvements in therapy.

What do you enjoy about teaching and mentoring young scientists in the lab?

The best thing is seeing my trainees thrive and advance their own careers. I owe a lot of people over my entire life, dating all the way back to grade school, for helping me along this path. It’s gratifying to repay society, so to speak, by training the next generation of pathologists and scientists. After all, their success is my success.

Tell us about how you got involved with social media. Do you have any tips for other physicians or scientists interested in doing the same?

It’s interesting, because I haven’t been a fan of social media as a rule. I had a Facebook account years ago, deleted it, and haven’t missed it at all. But, in 2017, Justin Lathia, a colleague of mine from Cleveland Clinic, encouraged me to sign up for Twitter as a way to advertise postdoctoral fellow openings in my lab. Then Kassandra Peck, the social media coordinator at Northwestern Neurosurgery, convinced me of Twitter’s ability to promote my “brand.”

I didn’t even know I had a brand to promote, but I soon discovered that Twitter is a great forum for showing high-yield pathology images and having people guess the diagnoses. I’ve always put a lot of effort into taking good histologic photomicrographs for papers and presentations, so it’s nice to share them with an even wider audience.

To other physicians and scientists, I recommend trying to create mini quizzes like I do, using eye-catching pictures whenever possible. They’re very easy to set up on Twitter, and make social media more educational, while at the same time advertising one’s expertise.