Playing the Brain Game

A quest for a cure

Photos by Ethan Chung

I made my way to the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle on a sunny, crisp late morning last August. Hospitals and doctors in general make me nervous and that day I had an appointment at The Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment. The name of this place was daunting on its own, and having never been in a facility where treatment of brain cancer is its primary function, I was unsure of what to expect. Before I get too far along in this account, I am grateful to say I didn’t make that trip for my personal health or to visit a loved one or friend. I was there to learn more about a mysterious disease of which there are few treatments, a disease that has no known cure. I was there because it was my first (and last) day as a brain surgeon. I and other members of the media, along with 25 people, ages 15-74, selected in a lottery, had the opportunity to see inside one of the most advanced and respected brain tumor treatment centers in the country.

Leading the way at the Ivy Center is Dr. Greg Foltz, a neurosurgeon. If you were going to be a brain surgeon for a day, or as a career, you’d want to be just like him — affable (he jokes as he bumbles trying to explain to attendees what to Tweet during his talk, and admits he doesn’t really get social media, he’s just a brain surgeon), compassionate and brilliant. Foltz was supposed to have another life as a classically trained pianist — The Juilliard School in New York was calling his name but that was put on hold when a dear friend was diagnosed with brain cancer. “It became very clear to me at that time, 25 years ago, that very little was being done. Her father was actually a neurosurgeon and he was the chair of the department of neurosurgery. He actually said that nothing was being done. He was grieving the fact that he’d spent his whole career in neurosurgery and had never once studied the disease. I was struck by that.” Foltz abandoned his musician’s path, enrolled in medical school and went through essentially 12 years of training, determined to find a cure.

Programs like “Brain Surgeon for a Day” are an essential part of Foltz’s quest. Advocacy for brain cancer is still lackluster compared to other cancer causes, and having the public get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the Ivy Center creates a heightened awareness of what it takes to treat and fight the disease. Our day with Foltz began with a quick introduction before jumping into an entire brain surgery performed by Foltz the previous Monday. The entire operation took 2 hours, but the demonstration was edited down to a 12-minute video of essential steps, a “Brain Surgery for Dummies” in graphic, visual form. And by the way, amazingly, this surgery was done with the patient awake, as the brain has no nerve endings for pain.

After the demonstration, the brain surgeons for a day, some of us greener in the face than others, were led into a lab down the hall where we had the opportunity to handle many of the tools that Foltz had used in his surgery, everything from the drill used to cut through the skull to a 3-D mapping sonogram tool used to locate and study the tumor before surgery even takes place.

The Ivy Center is full of state-of-the-art technology, but during my day as a brain surgeon I got to see what makes this place so exceptional — the integrated brain tumor tissue bank and the comprehensive genomic database, which is comprised of tumor tissue samples taken during surgery. This aspect of the center is important because it can potentially develop specific treatments for individual patients. “Not everyone gets their tumor sample frozen and saved and stored and it’s a real tragedy. I see patients all the time that are operated on somewhere else and their tumor is looked at and thrown away, literally. Then they find out that there’s a trial available somewhere where they actually need the tumor to make the vaccine or whatever it might be, they’re just out of luck,” Foltz said. The team at the Ivy Center is also currently working on a plan to bolster patients’ rights to maintain access to their own tumor samples.

There are few brain cancer treatment centers quite like the Ivy Center, where world-class research is done in a lab within the patient clinic. “What the disease needs is bringing the technology that we have today to the disease. Usually we have this huge gap between what doctors do, and what the scientists are doing. You see the way we’ve designed the lab. It’s right next to where I live. Right next to where the patients are. And that’s on purpose, so that we can use the latest technologies immediately and apply it to this disease.”425_JanFeb13_TwoNursesWithMachinel

Every day, Foltz and his team get closer to developing better treatments, and ultimately, they hope, a cure. Case in point, on Oct. 23, just a few months after the “Brain Surgeon for a Day” event, Foltz and the team at the Ivy Center published some potentially groundbreaking results of a pilot study in Oncotarget, a medical journal. A release from Swedish explained “The Ivy Center identified Disulfiram, an existing FDA-approved treatment for alcoholism, as a top candidate for pre-clinical testing for the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most common and aggressive malignant primary brain tumors. Nearly 50 additional FDA-approved drugs were also identified as potential treatment options.”

According to the Swedish Neuroscience Institute, only three new treatments for glioblastoma (the most common form of brain cancer, and one of the most malignant with a life expectancy of 12-14 months after diagnosis) have been approved by the FDA in the past 30 years. Also consider your chances of surviving brain cancer today are about as good as they were 100 years ago. Foltz and his team at the Ivy Center are well on their way to discovering new treatments, and he believes that better care and a true cure to the disease aren’t a lifetime away, but within reach a lot sooner.

Brain Teasers

  • Each year more than 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a primary ( cancer cells specific to the brain only) or metastatic (cancer cells that have spread to the brain from another part of the body) brain tumors.
  • Currently, the standard treatment for brain tumors includes surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
  • Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer and one of the most malignant forms of cancer. Glioblastoma is rapidly progressive and almost uniformly fatal despite surgical, radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
  • Approximately 22.000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with terminal brain cancer this year.
  • The average survival for glioblastoma patients is one to two years.

Statistics provided by Swedish Neuroscience Institute.


is a contributor to 425 magazine.
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