First Person with Dr. Michael DeCuypere: The Future of Childhood Cancer Treatment

December 07, 2022

At Lurie Children’s, we’ve committed to the promise of a healthier future and our promise of a cure. As far as medicine has advanced, and as quickly as research has transformed what is possible, so much work remains.  

Dr. Michael DeCuypere, Eleanor Clarke Research Scholar in Developmental Neurobiology Research, is an internationally recognized neurosurgeon whose research and clinical expertise lie in the area of brain tumors. Dr. DeCuypere is one of a small number of pediatric neurosurgeons in the U.S. who studies innovative ways to diagnose and treat pediatric brain tumors.  

Q: Isn’t the outlook for kids with cancer a lot more positive than in the past?

A: On the whole, yes, though childhood cancer rates have been on the rise for the past few decades. Around 10,000 children will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States this year alone. Because of major treatment advances, 85% of children with cancer now survive 5 years or more, which is certainly better than 50 years ago.   

Pediatric brain tumors are the most common solid tumors of childhood cancer, and the outlook is not as positive. They now represent the #1 cause of death due to cancer. Survival for a child with a malignant glioma can be variable, but currently less than 20% of children are alive 5 years after diagnosis.   

DIPG, or diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, tumors currently have no known cure. The 5-year survival of a child with a DIPG is only 2%. Most children with a DIPG survive less than 1 year from diagnosis.  

Q: What treatment options are available for a child with DIPG?   

A: The sensitive and critical nature of this brain location leaves surgical options limited to a biopsy only. The current standard-of-care for these tumors is radiation therapy, with chemotherapies largely based on experimental clinical trials. However, to date more than 200 different therapies have been trialed for this tumor and none have shown efficacy—none.   

Clearly, treating these tumors with traditional chemotherapies is not a viable option. This highlights the desperate need for new and innovative treatments that can only be developed by truly understanding these tumors at the cellular and molecular level.

Research in our lab is focused on how these tumors evade detection by the immune system and uses cutting-edge technologies to harness these unique features to fight this deadly disease. 

Q: Your work aims to improve the way we treat pediatric brain tumors, and someday develop a cure. What does your research show so far? 

A: We believe that targeted immunotherapy is the future of cancer treatment and holds great promise for malignant gliomas. Our preliminary results in cancer models, and humans, are very encouraging.   

Our goal is to develop original immunotherapy-based clinical trials that are initiated right here in Chicago but will help children all over the world. Caring for children with a malignant brain tumor is never easy but knowing that I am, in some way, participating in the development of new treatments for these tumors gives me strength.  

Q: What forms of support are critical to this work?  

A: As researchers, we need buy-in for our work from every angle. This looks like crucial funding from our institutions, government and philanthropists; selfless participation from patient families, and ongoing interest from the public at-large.  

Kids coping with tough cancer diagnoses are the reason I wake up every morning and go to work. I’m not alone; my team and I are committed to being sources of hope and compassion to our patient families, to creating support systems as they navigate trying times, and to advocating for brain tumor research.  

We know what we are up against, and we are on the ground developing therapies that will let kids with brain tumors grow up to lead healthy, long lives.   

More with Dr. DeCuypere 

In this episode of the Precision Podcast, follow along as Dr. DeCuypere discusses the surgeon’s role in treating pediatric brain tumors and the potentially game-changing research he is leading now in this area. Listen now