At the crossroads between cancer and neuroscience lies the research of Mariano Viapiano, PhD, of the Harvey Cushing Neuro-Oncology Laboratories at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In 2006, Viapiano became an assistant professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Neurosurgery, and in 2012, he was asked to come to BWH to run one of the five Harvey Cushing research labs in the Department of Neurology. He believes that the best basic science for brain cancer is happening here at BWH.
When it comes to neuro-oncology, Viapiano takes a different approach than most, as someone with a deep background in neuroscience – Viapiano’s PhD work focused on basic neuroscience and the visual cortex – Viapiano looks at brain tumors differently than his colleagues in oncology. This complementary perspective has helped him find new ways of gaining insights into the underlying biology of brain cancer.
Rather than focusing on the brain tumor itself, Viapiano and his lab focus on the tumor’s microenvironment, which includes anything near the tumor that is functioning “normally.” Normal cells and blood vessels may be helping the tumor survive and thrive in the brain.
“If you can harness these normal cells, and they stop ‘helping’ the tumor cells, the tumor would have a much harsher environment,” said Viapiano. He emphasizes that the extra cellular matrix or ECM, the so-called scaffolding that fills intracellular space in the brain and spinal cord, may contribute much to the tumor itself.
In addition to studying the tumor microenvironment, Viapiano has been collaborating with experts all over Boston including neurosurgeons, tumor geneticists, and engineers and imaging groups at BWH and other institutions. He is extremely passionate about finding a new, non-invasive way to visualize tumors, and sees promise in using optics.
Originally from Argentina, Viapiano received his PhD from Buenos Aires University. His first post doc position was at the University of San Paulo, and following that, he trained at Yale with Susan Hockfield, PhD, former president of MIT.
Viapiano knows that new techniques to see the brain must have an easy way to follow up with patients –obtaining and studying image scans routinely in order to obtain information about tumor responses as close to real time as possible. At this time, it is extremely difficult to get meaningful measurements of the brain, but Viapiano’s team remains confident that technological advancements and big discoveries in research regarding the tumor’s microenvironment will help revolutionize the field.