MARQUETTE -- Northern Michigan University will play a role in a new comprehensive Brain Tumor Program being established by The Upper Michigan Cancer and the Upper Michigan Neuroscience Center at Marquette General Hospital.

          The NMU biology department will collaborate with MGH on a research program that will examine the genetics of primary brain tumors in an effort to identify the mechanisms that cause a cell to become cancerous. Improved understanding of altered genetic pathways may lead to new treatment approaches.

          NMU biology professor Robert Winn will lead the research effort. He said his students are honored to work closely with MGH on the new initiative.

          “We’re excited to partner with MGH in this way,” Winn said. “Using our research strengths, with resources available at MGH, will benefit both institutions. I strongly believe it will result in a better understanding of brain tumors and ultimately better care for patients.”

          The NMU biology department, Winn said, will undertake the actual detection and characterization of specific genes or gene products that may play a role in the development and growth of tumor cells.

          “We will use a variety of molecular techniques depending on the specific target we hope to identify,” he said. “We’ll be looking for the presence of gene products in tumor cells that may be underlying causes of the tumor.”

          The collaborative research effort is one of three key components of the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Program, which may be fully operational by the fall. The remaining two components are a uniform clinical treatment program and patient advocacy programs. The latter would include support groups, educational materials, a newsletter and Web site.

          MGH is using the Brain Tumor Center at Duke University as a model and consulting resource. The hospital provides medical, surgical and radiation therapy care for a number of patients with a variety of benign and malignant brain tumors. One of those patients is Dorothy Verley, a retired NMU professor of health, physical education and recreation.

          Verley underwent brain tumor surgery in November at Marquette General. During the surgery, Dr. Richard Rovin implanted chemotherapy wafers called Gliadel into the tumor. The wafers dissolve, releasing the chemotherapy drug BCNU. According to Rovin, the localized drug application increases the drug concentration at the tumor site with minimal side effects in other parts of the body.

         Following surgery, Verley underwent radiation therapy five days a week for four weeks at the Upper Michigan Cancer Center at MGH. She also received chemotherapy at U.P. Hematology/Oncology Associates in the Peninsula Medical Center.

         Verley knew something was wrong last summer when infrequent migraine headaches began to the multiply to the point that she was experiencing them daily.

         “I was sleeping a lot, too,” she explained. “On my way back from a trip, the migraines became very bad. When I got home, I went to the MGH emergency department and an MRI confirmed I had a tumor.”

         A recent MRI shows the area as being “clean,” but Verley will continue to undergo monthly chemotherapy treatments to stay one step ahead of the cancer.

         She’s pleased to see Marquette General launch a Brain Tumor Program.

         “I came into this experience unaware of brain tumors,” Verley said. “I’m still trying to cope with the long-term perspective. It becomes overwhelming managing 17 different types of medications. I think the education and support groups are a good idea, just to be able to say you can contact someone to pinpoint certain maladies. I’m very interested in this project.”

         Rovin, a board-certified neurosurgeon and member of the core team for the Brain Tumor Program, is optimistic that patients like Verley will reap the benefits of the new initiative.

        “This is a very exciting time,” Dr. Rovin said. “NMU is fired up about the research, and we are ready to build on our program and take it to another level.”

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