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Working in collaboration, Drs. Tim Phoenix and Pratiti (Mimi) Bandopadhayay have recently discovered that a gene called FOXR2, normally turned off in most tissues in the body, is activated in many types of childhood tumors, including diffuse midline glioma (DMG). 

Their study, recently published in Cancer Research, may help scientists better understand how a variety of cancers develop and how to target tumors in a way that causes fewer side effects.

In a recent interview with Dr. Phoenix, we learned more about this exciting work and how receiving a ChadTough Defeat DIPG Game Changer Grant has helped further his research efforts.

CTDDF: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you decided to work in the world of brain cancer research?

Tim Phoenix: I’m originally from upstate New York and did my PhD work on brain development. I became interested in the link between developmental processes and cancer, so I pursued my postdoctoral research in pediatric brain cancer. Working in this field captured my attention and my heart. I was very fortunate to start my independent lab in 2016 that continues to focus on brain cancer research and specifically pediatric brain cancers.

CTDDF: In your recent work, you found that expression of the gene FOXR2 boosts the growth rate of brain tumors, including diffuse midline gliomas. Can you tell us more about this and what it means for treating the disease?

Tim Phoenix: I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with Mimi Bandopadhayay on several projects, including our recent work on FOXR2 that was published in Cancer Research. This work was led by Jessica Tsai, MD, PhD, a very talented postdoctoral fellow/instructor in the Bandopadhayay lab. We found that FOXR2, which is normally not expressed by most cells in the body, is aberrantly turned on in many adult and pediatric cancers, including DIPG/DMG. In this work, we further characterized the mechanisms that turn FOXR2 “on” and demonstrated it is a bonafide oncogene, meaning its expression promotes tumor formation and growth. Current work is focused on understanding the fine details behind how FOXR2 promotes DIPG/DMG growth and how we can leverage this knowledge for therapeutic purposes.

CTDDF: Recently, you were awarded a ChadTough Defeat DIPG Game Changer grant. What do you feel is the importance of private funding in moving the field of DIPG forward? 

Tim Phoenix: It is really essential. To have the resources to perform preliminary experiments and gather data for these “new” ideas is huge. It provides a springboard to secure larger federal grants. But I also think it serves as a guiding light to the field itself. A lot of the key discoveries are being made because of private funding.

CTDDF: Can you comment on the current state of DIPG treatment in general?  For example, how have things changed since Chad Carr and Michael Mosier were diagnosed in 2014? 

Tim Phoenix: We have learned a lot about the genetics and biology of DIPG since 2014, but there is still a lot of work to do. I am excited about some of the ongoing clinical trials and new treatment avenues being utilized. This and the efforts of the entire community are always motivating and inspirational.

ChadTough Defeat DIPG Foundation is proud to support the exciting work of Drs. Tim Phoenix and Pratiti Bandopadhayay. This study has provided some early clues on how FOXR2 works, but there is still much to learn. Next, they hope to break down the relationship between ETS and FOXR2 to better understand how the gene is activated.  The team has also already partnered with other labs at the Dana-Farber, Broad Institute to explore how to develop cancer treatments targeting FOXR2.