Physician-Scientist Uses Stem Cells to Research Incurable Cancer

Dimitris G. Placantonakis, MD, PhD

NYU School of Medicine
Assistant Professor, Department of Neurosurgery
Director Neurosurgical Laboratory for Stem Cell Research

Dr. Dimitris G. Placantonakis is a physician-scientist—he both removes and researches a specific type of brain tumor, called low-grade gliomas.

There are an estimated 20,000 cases of gliomas every year in the U.S., up to a third of which are low-grade gliomas. These tumors grow very slowly, but eventually lead to neurological degeneration affecting vision, movement, and behavior, then ultimately death.

Removing the tumors—which Dr. Placantonakis does as a neurosurgeon— is an essential part of treatment. But, the surgery is not a cure, as tumor cells infiltrate the brain and cannot be totally removed. Other conventional treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, fail to eradicate these specific cells. That’s why Dr. Placantonakis is also a scientist, researching better treatments for these tumors with the help of stem cells.

”I think of them as one job, to be a physician-scientist,” says Dr. Placantonakis. “I think to be a good neurosurgeon, you have to have a good understanding of the science, and new discoveries from the scientific world can translate back into surgery.”

Because these specific types of tumors are slow-growing at first, patient samples are not useful to study in the lab. That’s why normal stem cells are critical. Dr. Placantonakis’s lab has modified stem cells to have same genetic background as low-grade gliomas, and demonstrated the model has many similarities to actual tumors. They are using it to understand basic mechanism of these tumors – how and why they develop – and identify genes that could be a target for therapy. Dr. Placantonakis’s lab will also use these stem-cell disease models to screen existing drugs for new uses in treating this tumor.

For this promising research, Dr. Placantonakis was awarded his first grant by New York State Stem Cell Science (NYSTEM). Academic researchers depend on public funding from NYSTEM, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) to support basic science and early stage studies that produce new targets for treatment. Funding at the beginning of research pipeline is critical to lead to new breakthroughs.

“If you think about a lot of specific cancers that are very treatable these days, it didn’t happen because someone funded the end of the pipeline a year ago,” said Dr. Placantonakis. “This is happening because someone funded the research 20 years ago.”

Public investment in research has immediate benefits in creating new jobs and new startups, he said, in addition to longer term public health benefits.

“Better treatments arise from good research, and that’s what NYSTEM is there to support.”