A Collaboration That Really Counts: Making Gains on Brain Tumor Research

As part of our ongoing coverage of philanthropic support in brain research, last year we reported on the establishment of the Jumpstarting Brain Tumor Drug Development Coalition (JBTDDC), a collaboration designed to bring some desperately needed research focus to the specific area of brain tumors. For a variety of reasons, including the lack of a specific demographic of its sufferers, the study of brain cancer has been woefully underfunded. So it's a great example of a field where small players need to work together.

We're seeing a lot of collaborations among funders these days, but some are arguably more crucial than others, at least in terms of mobilizing resources that otherwise wouldn't exist to tackle a problem. This is such a case. 

We hoped that JBTDDC would demonstrate the effectiveness of a multi-philanthropy research collaboration in areas such as brain tumors that might otherwise fall between the cracks. So we were happy to see that less than two years in, the coalition has published its first big piece of progress: a new consensus protocol for the use of MRI in assessing the effectiveness of drug treatments. Essentially, the protocols are standards to determine how a tumor is responding to treatment (hopefully by shrinking.)

Why is this important? Most people assume MRIs are like magical cameras that take perfectly clear pictures of our insides, with no room for interpretation. It's not quite that simple: the combination of different MRI machines, different researchers, and different institutions has made for a lack of standards in how images are assessed.

"What may come as a shock to some is that there is a lack of confidence in the use of MRIs in brain tumor clinical trials—when potential new drugs are being tested—to determine whether patients are actually getting benefit from the investigational therapy," wrote David Arons, Interim CEO and chief public policy and advocacy officer of the National Brain Tumor Society, one of the organizations in JBTDDC.

The new protocols can minimize the variability between researchers and institutions in the interpretation of images and how tumors are measured, a common problem in studies that involve more than one research center. That variability has hampered investigators' ability to combine imaging data from different research sites. 

Brain tumors, of course, can be serious business. Just ask the Biden family. Patients diagnosed with glioblastoma, for example, have a median survival of only 14 to 16 months, and fewer than 10 percent survive beyond five years. New drug development and clinical studies are a slow process, but protocols like this new one can accelerate the progress of drugs through research and toward FDA approval, explained JBTDDC.

The JBTDDC is a collaboration between the National Brain Tumor Society, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, the Musella Foundation for Brain Tumor Research and Information, and the Society for Neuro-Oncology. It's an encouraging sign that they were able to make something important happen so quickly.