Featured Researcher: Dr. Chetan Bettegowda
Because chordoma is such a rare cancer, most doctors-in-training never even come across it during medical school or residency. But because Dr. Chetan Bettegowda went to Johns Hopkins University for his training, he had an uncommon opportunity to learn about this uncommon cancer.
“Johns Hopkins is one of a handful of high-volume centers for caring for patients with chordoma,” says Bettegowda, who earned medical and doctoral degrees at JHU and joined the neurosurgery and oncology faculty in 2012. “While working with our neurosurgeons and patients and discussing different research questions and opportunities, I became interested in chordoma as well.” Youssef Yakkioui is fascinated by neurosurgery, and by the biology of tumors. The Dutch medical doctor and PhD candidate is planning a career as a physician-scientist – but he is already contributing to our understanding of the molecular underpinnings of chordoma and helping to lay the groundwork to develop new therapeutic approaches.
Bettegowda provides medical and surgical care for adults with brain tumors and other neurological disorders. He also pursues research focused on tumors that affect the brain, spine and central nervous system. In late 2013, he received a $50,000 seed grant from the Chordoma Foundation toward his efforts to develop a personalized blood test for chordoma patients. If successful, this test could potentially detect recurrences, metastases, progression, or response or resistance to therapy sooner and with greater sensitivity than existing imaging technologies.
“A few types of tumors have markers in the blood that clinicians can use to see changes in the tumor over time – PSA for prostate cancer, for instance,” Bettegowda explains. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of tumor types, including chordoma, do not have such a marker, making it difficult to determine whether a tumor is responding to treatment, or is returning.”
Bettegowda’s goal is to develop a blood test that is specific to each person’s tumor. “Using very sensitive molecular biology techniques, we can detect and quantify fragments of mutated DNA spilled by the tumor into the bloodstream. For example, we could measure the amount of this DNA present in a patient’s blood in January, and then again in June. If the amount increased dramatically, we would be concerned that the tumor was growing or recurring. Conversely, if the amount had decreased, we would be hopeful that the tumor was getting smaller and responding to therapy.”