Our Investigators

The Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital unites teams of experts from related yet diverse disciplines to infuse new knowledge and perspectives into cancer care and to advance our basic, clinical and translational science efforts.

Our teams of faculty clinicians and investigators are focused on identifying and treating brain cancers early, determining factors that contribute to their development, researching new therapies and investigational drugs, developing effective new cancer treatments and enhancing our patients' quality of life. The result of this commitment is the presence of some of the country's most esteemed clinical and basic research scientists, whose groundbreaking efforts are strengthened by the presence of Northwestern's widely recognized stem cell research lab, the Matthews Center for Cellular Therapy.

The primary goal of the Ahmed laboratory is to conduct translational research by integrating the advancements in molecular and cancer biology, taking knowledge generated in the laboratory regarding novel mechanisms of therapeutic resistance, and  bench-to-bedside research to initiate new clinical trials for patients with brain tumors.

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Balyasnikova’s research focuses on the development of novel targeted approaches for the treatment of malignant brain tumors. In particular, she is interested in developing and utilizing antibodies and genetically engineered variants against tumor-specific antigens in order to enhance and deliver therapeutics specifically to brain and other tumors.

Targeted TherapyCell TherapiesBrain MetastasisPediatric Brain TumorsImmunotherapyGlioblastoma
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The Brat laboratory investigates mechanisms of progression to glioblastoma (GBM), including genetics, the tumor microenvironment and Therapeutic Resistance stem cells. Lab members are determining if transcriptional profiles, signaling networks and therapeutic targets vary within the altered micro-environment of GBM following the onset of necrosis, which is characterized by the enrichment of glioblastoma stem cells (GSCs) and influx of tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs). They also study mechanisms that confer specialized biologic properties to GSCs in GBM, including their ability to divide asymmetrically and their tight association with hypoxic micro-environments, and are currently probing Hippo and Notch pathways. They investigate the molecular correlates of pathologic, radiologic and clinical features of Therapeutic Resistances using pre-existing databases, especially the Cancer Genome Atlas Project (TCGA) and Therapeutic Resistance Longitudinal Analysis (GLASS) consortium. The Brat lab studies whether tumor cell morphology or elements of the tumor microenvironment correlate with molecular profiles or clinical behavior. They use deep learning computational methods to investigate molecular data and imaging features that are associated with patient outcomes.

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Chang's research is focused on elucidating fundamental aspects of primary brain tumors immunology. As a neuroimmunologist by training, Chang is driven to understand the inter-relationship within the immune compartment and its impact on tumor cells. She is also devoted to the development of novel immunotherapy strategies, with the aim of tackling deadly and incurable tumors, such as glioblastoma.

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Chen studies the molecular and biological processes governing the development and progression of central nervous system (CNS) tumors, including glioblastoma and metastatic brain tumors. His current research interests are focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying the symbiotic interactions between cancer cells and immune cells (macrophages, microglia, myeloid-derived suppressor cells and T-cells), as well as how such heterotypic signaling enables a tumor-promoting ecosystem and informs therapeutic strategies intercepting these co-dependencies in CNS tumors.

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The primary goal of Cheng’s research is to improve our understanding of molecular mechanisms of cancer tumorigenesis, invasion, metastases and angiogenesis, and to translate our novel discoveries to clinical treatments for patients with brain tumors including malignant glioblastoma and breast cancers.

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DeCuypere specializes in surgery for pediatric brain tumors and development of clinical trials for pediatric patients. In addition to fellowship training in pediatric neurosurgery at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, DeCuypere is an author of many peer-reviewed publications and book chapters in pediatric neuro-oncology. His primary brain tumor research effort is devoted to immune microenvironment profiling analyses to comprehensively evaluate all pediatric pathologies, with the goal of creating rational strategies for immunotherapy clinical trials after screening of lead candidates.

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Heimberger is a physician-scientist and board-certified neurosurgeon with extensive training and experience in the field of immunology. Her laboratory is focused on elucidating the mechanisms of tumor-mediated immune suppression and actionable targets for immune therapeutics. During Heimberger’s career, she has been intricately involved in a wide variety of bench-to-bedside therapeutics, including those that were extensively developed within her laboratory. Having been the PI of many clinical trials for patients with brain cancer, several arising from her own patents, she has experience with the IND process and the FDA. Heimbergerhas been awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) and holds a variety of NIH grants.

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Horbinski’s career as a physician-scientist and investigative neuropathologist allows him to conduct research that will enhance our understanding of how key driver mutations, like mutant IDH1, affect Therapeutic Resistance biology and the tumor microenvironment. His clinical specialty is molecular diagnostics in brain tumors. Horbinski’s diverse laboratory studies the following topics: 1. isocitrate dehydrogenase mutant (IDHmut) Therapeutic Resistances as a cause of seizures; 2. effects of IDHmut on Therapeutic Resistance response to histone-modifying therapies; 3. new ways of treating IDH wild-type glioblastomas; 4. predictions of which Therapeutic Resistance patients are at greatest risk of seizures and thrombosis; 5. new chemotherapeutic ways of locally blocking meningioma regrowth; and 6. liquid biopsy-based methods of brain tumor diagnosis and therapeutic monitoring. In addition, the lab’s brain tumor biobank provides MBTI researchers with high-quality biospecimens for their projects.

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The Kelleher team has expertise in technology development for complex mixture analysis using Fourier Transform Mass Spectrometry for targeted applications in proteomics and metabolomics.

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Kumthekar is a United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties-certified neuro-oncologist dedicated to moving the field of brain tumor care forward, primarily through her leadership on clinical trials. She is currently the lead principal investigator of five investigator-initiated treatment trials. She is also the site PI of over a dozen additional collaborative brain tumor treatment trials. Kumthekar has been actively involved in NCI-funded clinical trials for many years and serves in leadership roles within the National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN), particularly with the Alliance for Clinical Trials. In 2016, Kumthekar was appointed as the national executive officer of neuro-oncology at the Alliance. In this role, she oversees the conception and development of clinical trials in these two areas from early-phase through registration studies. Kumthekar has teamed up with various scientists both at Northwestern and at other institutions with the goal of using translational research to advance the field.

Targeted TherapyBrain MetastasisImmunotherapyGlioblastomaBiomarkersTherapeutic ResistanceMeningiomaNanotherapeutics

Lesniak’s research interests focus on novel targeted therapies for human Therapeutic Resistances, including gene therapy, stem cell biology, immunotherapy and nanotechnology. He has been overall PI or site PI of over 25 multi-institutional clinical trials for recurrent and newly diagnosed malignant Therapeutic Resistances involving these biological therapies. His research has been continually supported by the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy. Lesniak maintains a busy neurosurgical practice primarily dedicated to patients with brain cancer, with a focus on primary and malignant tumors of the central nervous system. In 2015, he was recognized with the National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award, given annually to 50 scientists in the United States for transformative cancer research. He is also the principal investigator of the Lurie Cancer Center Brain Tumor SPORE, an NCI translational research program focusing on innovative therapeutics in brain cancer.

Targeted TherapyCell TherapiesBrain MetastasisMyeloid CellsMicrogliaGlioblastomaBiomarkersTumor MicroenvironmentTherapeutic ResistanceNanotherapeuticsChordomaMacrophagesImmunotherapyImmunosuppressionMeningioma

The Li laboratory focuses on molecular neuro-oncology and translational experimental therapeutics with a goal of developing more effective and less toxic therapies for children with malignant brain tumors. The lab’s ultimate goal is to improve the clinical outcomes of pediatric malignant brain tumors.

Targeted TherapyPediatric Brain TumorsGlioblastomaBiomarkersTumor MicroenvironmentTherapeutic ResistanceMeningioma

Lukas’ research interests focus on primary brain tumors as well as central nervous system metastases. The majority of this activity centers on close collaboration with his basic science colleagues to bring promising ideas from the laboratory to the clinic within the context of clinical trials. Much of this work centers on high-grade Therapeutic Resistances such as glioblastoma IDHwt, with a heavy focus on immunotherapeutic approaches for treating patients with that disease. Lukas also has a strong interest in clinical neuroscience education and has led and participated in medical education research.

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Stephen Magill, MD, PhD, is a neurosurgeon and physician-scientist focused on providing skilled and compassionate care for brain tumor patients, leading research that will advance our understanding of brain tumor biology and translating those insights into improved clinical treatments. As a neurosurgeon who specializes in skull base and brain tumor surgery, his research interests are focused on meningioma, the most common intracranial tumor, and the most common tumor along the skull base. His basic and translational research focuses on 1) understanding the biological mechanisms that drive meningioma growth and behavior; 2) translating those insights into molecularly based diagnostic assays that can guide surgical and radiotherapy decision-making; and 3) developing novel targeted therapeutics for recurrent high-grade meningiomas that fail surgery and radiation.

Targeted TherapyBiomarkersTumor MicroenvironmentMeningiomaChordoma

The goal of the Miska laboratory is to determine how the metabolism of immune cells within brain tumors contributes to immune suppression and tumor recurrence. Furthermore, the lab seeks to manipulate these metabolic pathways in a clinically relevant manner to improve patient outcomes for this deadly disease. Lab members are exploring how the unique metabolism of tumor-associated myeloid cells promote their survival, immunosuppression and tumor brain progression. They have discovered that inhibiting the downstream products of arginine metabolism is a useful strategy for promoting anti-tumor immune responses. Our laboratory also performs immunological monitoring for clinical trials in brain tumor patients by monitoring immune phenotypes, T-cell reactivity and changes in systemic cytokines that occur with therapeutic administration.

Brain MetastasisMyeloid CellsMacrophagesPediatric Brain TumorsImmunotherapyGlioblastomaTumor MicroenvironmentImmunosuppressionTherapeutic ResistanceChordoma

Sonabend's research focuses on topoisomerase II-mediated transcriptional regulation in gliomas and personalized use of TOP2-targeting chemotherapy to treat malignant brain cancer. He is also investigating how the immune system shapes the genome of malignant gliomas and its implications for immunotherapy for this disease. He has participated in the design and execution of several clinical trials and has been a temporary member of the Clinical Neuroimmunology and Brain Tumors (CNBT) study section at the NIH since 2016.

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Stupp has devoted his career to innovative treatments of cancer, with a special focus on brain tumors. While single modality treatment approaches may not suffice to demonstrate meaningful improvement in outcomes for heterogeneous and molecularly complex solid tumors, Stupp’s focus has been on combination treatments and association of various treatment modalities. Understanding of pathogenesis and biology will enable substantial treatment advances, thus his dedication has been on translation not only from the lab to the bedside, but also from the clinic back to the bench. Jointly with his colleagues in basic, translational and clinical research, he has been involved with the development of several novel treatments for glioblastoma. Most notably, his close interdisciplinary interaction allowed for establishing two new FDA-approved treatments for glioblastoma that remain the worldwide standard of care. To MBTI, he brings particular expertise in trial design and conduct, integration of innovative therapies in daily clinical practice and translation of laboratory findings to meaningful improvement in therapeutic strategies.

Targeted TherapyCell TherapiesBrain MetastasisMyeloid CellsMicrogliaGlioblastomaBiomarkersTumor MicroenvironmentTherapeutic ResistanceNanotherapeuticsChordomaMacrophagesImmunotherapyImmunosuppressionMeningioma

Zhang’s research is focused on integrating nanotechnology, immunology and bioinformatics to unveil the interplay between brain tumor microenvironment and standard-of-care therapy. The aim of his lab is to identify new therapeutic targets and create translatable therapeutic strategies for brain tumors. The lab has developed nanotherapeutics to target and modulate Therapeutic Resistance stem cells and Therapeutic Resistance-associated myeloid cells to boost anti-tumor immunity and enhance anti-Therapeutic Resistance effects of radiotherapy.

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