Angela Liou tackles pediatric brain tumors head-on

Angela Liou, M.D., headshot

New physician-scientist at Sanford Burnham Prebys will also care for patients at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego

Despite improvements in treatments, survival rates among children with brain and central nervous system (CNS) cancers are decidedly mixed, ranging from close to 100% to almost zero five years after diagnosis.

Angela Liou, M.D., who recently joined the faculty at Sanford Burnham Prebys as a physician-scientist, is acutely aware of the numbers.

“I’m motivated by my passion for cancer research, my drive to improve care for my patients and the dismal prognosis of most malignant brain tumors despite advances in cancer treatment, said Liou. “I have taken care of many children who have died from CNS tumors and each child instilled in me an urgency to find effective therapies.”

Liou, who will divide her time between conducting research in the lab of Peter Adams, Ph.D., director and professor in the Cancer Genome and Epigenetics Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys and practicing pediatric oncology and hematology at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, studies the biological and epigenomic origins of CNS tumors in children.

“Given gaps in effective therapies for children and young adults with malignant CNS tumors, I want to uncover the mechanistic underpinnings of pediatric diffuse midline gliomas (DMG) and identify targetable vulnerabilities that can be translated into more effective therapies.”

Magnetic resonance images of a brainstem glioma in a 4-year-old patient. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Magnetic resonance images of a brainstem glioma in a 4-year-old patient.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

DMG tumors begin in the brain, spreading through cerebrospinal fluid.

“They are  highly aggressive and lethal, occurring young children between the ages of six and nine, with an overall survival rate of just nine to 15 months and no curative therapies to date,” said Liou.

Liou, who pursued her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley and attended medical school at Duke University, became interested in cancer research and care after her father died from pancreatic cancer, among the most lethal of malignancies.

That and subsequent work, primarily in the lab of Thomas De Raedt, M.S.E, Ph.D. a research scientist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, eventually led her to study the relationship between epigenomic dysregulation and the cause of pediatric brain tumors.

Specifically, Liou is investigating key mutations in DMGs that appear to drive oncogenesis — the process through which healthy cells transform into cancer cells — and whether these mutations present attractive therapeutic targets.

“Given location of DMGs within the brainstem, surgical resection is not a viable option and these tumors are resistant to radiation and conventional chemotherapies.”

Prior to Sanford Burnham Prebys, Liou specialized in pediatric oncology and hematology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She was also an instructor in pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and a resident physician in pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.

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