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Dr. Katherine Foster Warren ’82 foresees making a difference in the outcome for children with “impossible” brain tumors within the next five or 10 years.

Alumna devotes career to finding treatments for childhood brain tumors

06/10/15

As an undergraduate, Dr. Katherine Foster Warren ’82 found the way her professors presented information in class to be extremely interesting – almost addictive. “You wanted to find out more. There were questions that were still not answered,” she said.

Now the head of the Pediatric Neuro-Oncology division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), at the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., Warren continues to look for answers as she searches for treatments for childhood brain tumors.

“If you hand me the answer, it doesn’t feel challenging enough,” Warren said. “I want to do more, and find the find the answers for the kids who don’t have any options.”

Originally, Warren planned to specialize in childhood leukemia.

“Then, I met a young patient with a brain tumor, who subsequently died from the brain tumor. I saw that there were no treatments available that were effective for him. That changed my career path. We’re very successful in treating childhood leukemia these days, but for certain brain tumors, there’s nothing.”

Most children who are treated for a brain tumor have some sort of long-term effects from the therapy or the tumor, “So, trying to improve their quality of life while trying to find cures and therapies for kids who don’t do well has been my main mission.”

Although there are more than 100 different types of childhood brain tumors, Warren said she is drawn to those deemed “impossible” to cure. She specializes in tumors called “diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas,” or DIPGs.

“We have had an increase in the understanding of these tumors, we think, over the past five years in particular. But, it hasn’t yet translated into an improved outcome for the kids. Before five years ago, we just assumed that these tumors were similar to adult tumors. About five years ago, we learned that they were different, so we’ve been on a huge mission to tackle these, and understand what makes them tick and how we can stop them,” she said.

Warren, who grew up in Waltham, Mass., first visited the former North Adams State College – now MCLA – because her older brother, David Foster ’81 was a student.

“I went out to visit him, and loved it. They had the program that I wanted, which was medical technology, and so I followed him, as did his twin, Barbara,” she said.

As a high school student she wanted to become a doctor; however, from a practical standpoint, Warren also wanted a major that would allow her to find work and start earning money immediately upon graduation.

As a medical technologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, she did a volunteer rotation in hematology in the pediatric leukemia clinic at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Four years after she graduated from the College, she entered medical school at Tufts University. She then served a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in pediatric hematology/oncology. “That was in 1993, and I haven’t left yet,” she laughed.

Although Warren says her career has been “somewhat satisfying from an intellectual perspective,” ongoing questions and a nagging need to do more to improve the outcome of children with DIPGs is ever present.

Within the next five or 10 years; however, Warren foresees making some difference in that outcome.

“We have developed cell lines of these tumors now, so we can actually grow them in the laboratory, which we weren’t able to do five years ago. We’re looking to see which drugs kill the tumor cells in the test tube. Then, we look to see if the drug can actually get to where we want it to be, or if we can alter the drugs to get [to the tumors] better, or give the drugs in a different way.

“I love what I’m doing,” she continued. “It’s definitely challenging. I would love it more if we were making more of an impact on the outcome of these kids. But, I do believe we’re almost there.”