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Posted by on May 19, 2011.

Researchers look for new ways to remove brain tumors

Dr. Barun Brahma works at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and is part of a team of neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers researching a groundbreaking way to remove brain tumors in children.

For Dr. Barun Brahma, brain tumors are a passion.

The Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta neurosurgeon sees how difficult it is for children to cope with brain cancer, which he calls the greatest issue in pediatric neurosurgery.

“These kids with brain tumors are kind of tied to the hospital for months to years on end,” Brahma said.

So Brahma is conducting research that he hopes eventually will reduce the danger of treating brain tumors in children.

The 36-year-old is part of a team conducting groundbreaking research that aims to pull cancerous cells away from the brain where they can be more easily removed. Often, brain tumors occur in areas of the brain where surgery is especially risky.

This is the first year of a nearly five-year study with the team, composed of neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers.

“We’re actually pulling brain tumors out of the brain by making them walk along these chemical gradients,” Brahma said. “We’re getting exciting results in animals so far.”

The approach uses tiny scaffolds to pull tumor cells to where they can be removed and killed.

Dr. Tobey MacDonald, a physician and researcher at the Emory Children’s Center, said the idea for the research was “serendipity” and was born out of a conversation he had with Ravi Bellamkonda, a biomedical engineer at Georgia Tech.

“We got to talking after this meeting and his interest in developing these nano-technologies for various uses,” MacDonald said. “We were saying my interest was exploiting how cells move. So we thought each of us had an area of strength.”

The two were able to develop the idea and received a EUREKA Grant from the National Institutes of Health for about $1 million toward their research.

When it came time to test their theory, Brahma was brought on to insert the scaffolds into the brains of lab mice.

“We’re used to doing injections ourselves into mouse brains and things of that nature, but putting these very, very tiny scaffolds into a mouse brain– which is very small– takes a lot of technical skill,” MacDonald said. “(Bellamkonda) had already been working with Dr. Brahma and we discussed if he could help us put these in the tumor in the position we wanted.”

MacDonald said the collaboration across fields has shown success so far.

“None of this is possible in my lab without the Georgia Tech engineering and, of course, we could try to implant these scaffolds into the tumors, but it probably would have been an unsuccessful — or at least a long and arduous task — without the neurosurgery team.”

For Brahma, the combination of neurosurgery and engineering is a natural fit.

“I have an engineering background, I’m a biomedical engineer by training,” Brahma said. “We’re trying to find as simple and elegant a solution as possible–that’s the goal of engineering.”

Brahma, who lives in Brookhaven, grew up in Fresno, Calif., where his father was a professor of civil engineering at California State University.

Naturally, Brahma was encouraged to go into engineering.

“I always wanted to do medicine,” Brahma said. “Everyone wants their kid to be a doctor, but my parents told me not to do it.”

It was not long before Brahma realized his calling was in medicine, but he discovered his interest in neuroscience by chance.

“I had a dynamic professor in neuroscience,” Brahma said. “I took it kind of randomly, a friend said the professor was really good.”

Brahma still has big professional goals he hopes to achieve. He would like to one day open a spinal injury center that caters to children and teenagers.

Brahma said he is drawn to pediatrics and really enjoys working with children and their families.

“It involves the sweetness. It is just incredibly wonderful coming here to work and helping these kids,” Brahma said.

He said while working with children can be challenging, it is also rewarding.

“Pediatrics is more training and the financial aspect is a lot worse,” Brahma said. “But the things you can’t measure are endlessly better.”

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