Neurosurgical Oncology Program

The University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery neurosurgical oncology program—led by Costas Hadjipanayis, MD, PhD; Kalil G. Abdullah, MDJames Bayley, MD; and Pascal Zinn, MD, PhD—is comprised of a multidisciplinary team of researchers, physicians, and healthcare professionals dedicated to conducting cutting-edge research, delivering state-of-the-art clinical care, and developing innovative treatments for brain tumor patients. The program is one of the largest clinical and most productive basic/translational brain and spine tumor programs in the country, encompassing research across the adult and pediatric science spectrum and supported heavily in funding from the National Institutes of Health and other generous foundations. 

One of our program’s key strengths lies in its collaborative approach. Researchers and clinicians from diverse fields, including neurosurgery, radiation oncology, neuro-oncology, neuropathology, and neuroradiology, work together to tackle the complex challenges associated with brain and spine tumors. This multidisciplinary collaboration fosters a comprehensive understanding of tumor biology, enables faster translation of discoveries into clinical practice, and ultimately improves patient care with clinical trials.

As an international referral program for adult brain and spine tumors, the program ranks among the top programs in the nation. Faculty members provide consultation and guidance for local, national, and international referrals. Patients with both primary brain and spine tumors and metastatic tumors are seen in the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center multidisciplinary clinics that include representation from neurosurgery, medical neuro-oncology, and radiation oncology. A weekly multidisciplinary neuro-oncology tumor board is a forum for a team of specialists to review patient problems and to formulate management recommendations. The tumor board draws from the expertise of the neurosurgery, neurology, radiology, neuropathology, and radiation oncology faculty at UPMC. Similarly, there is a weekly skull base tumor board with involvement from otolaryngology/head and neck cancer specialists, neuro-ophthalmology, radiology, and adult neurosurgery. Education, support, and counseling for family members are important parts of our program.

Neurosurgical oncology care at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery includes subspecialized neurosurgeons providing the best treatments available for patients with both benign and malignant tumors of the brain and spine. Neurosurgical oncologists are dedicated to discovering novel and effective therapies for these diseases through clinical trials and translational bench-to-bedside trials based on scientific breakthroughs developed in our laboratories.

Neurosurgical oncology at UPMC is one of the most robust and innovative programs in the world, with one of the largest volumes of patients treated on an annual basis. The program has been a leader in the implementation of cutting-edge technologies such as stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) using the Gamma Knife, LINAC-based stereotactic radiosurgery, and image-guided brain tumor resection. Important new and innovative technologies such as the robotic-assisted surgical exoscope, MR-guided laser interstitial thermal therapy (LITT), and fluorescence-guided surgery (FGS) are routinely employed within our brain tumor program. The use of advanced imaging modalities, such as high-definition white matter fiber tract imaging (tractography) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), has also facilitated better outcomes for selected patients with tumors. In addition, awake craniotomy techniques with brain mapping tumor are routinely used to maximize safe removal of brain tumors.

An important multidisciplinary effort towards enhancing the workflow for complex awake brain tumor surgery at UPMC includes the addition of pre-, intra-, and postoperative neuropsychological testing by Natalie Sherry, PhD, and Luke Henry, PhD. Preoperative functional imaging, including magnetoencephalography (MEG), led by Ajay Niranjan, MD, director of the UPMC Brain Mapping Center, as well as intraoperative high-definition fiber tracking (HDFT) by Frank Yeh, PhD, director of the High-Definition Fiber Tractography Lab, have permitted the identification of important functional pathways in the brain to avoid during brain tumor surgery. The integration of our world class intraoperative neuromonitoring program led by Parthasarathy Thirumala, MD, along with, Jeffrey Balzer, MD, Katherine Anetakis, MD, and Donald Crammond, PhD, permits maximal safe removal of tumors.

Our medical neuro-oncology team is an important component of our patient care efforts and is comprised of four active neurooncologists led by Jan Drappatz, MD, and including Frank Lieberman, MD, Megan Mantica, MD, and Jeremy Rich, MD. This team provides outstanding care to our brain tumor patients, and has multiple clinical trials open to accrual at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. The neuro-oncology team is also actively studying other neurological complications of systemic cancer and its treatment, including stroke, neurobehavioral disorders, neurological complications of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, and paraneoplastic neurological syndromes.

Our radiation oncology program, led by John Flickinger, MD, Christopher Wilke, MD, Andrew Zureick, MD, and Serah Choi, MD, provides comprehensive expertise in clinical care of a wide spectrum of benign and malignant diseases affecting the brain and spine. The leading-edge treatments used include Gamma Knife radiosurgery, LINAC based stereotactic radiosurgery, radiation therapy using a variety of technological treatment planning including 3D conformal radiation therapy and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). In collaboration with Peter Gerszten, MD, spine stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is used to treat patients with oligometastatic, and previously irradiated spinal metastases. This therapeutic approach offers a treatment option in situations where no viable options were previously available.

Another notable aspect of our neurosurgical oncology  program is its commitment to education and training. The University of Pittsburgh provides robust training opportunities for aspiring neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, and researchers, fostering the development of the next generation of neurosurgical oncology specialists. A new CAST-approved neurosurgical oncology fellowship is now available for trainees. We also offer fellowship training in medical neuro-oncology. The fellowship is accredited through the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties, directed by Megan Mantica, MD, and supported through a generous donation by the Karp family, in memory of Henry “Hank" Karp. It aims to inspire future neuro-oncologists to lead research and care innovations in the U.S. and around the world. This dedication to education helps to build a strong foundation for future advancements in brain tumor research and treatment.

Overall, the neurosurgical oncology program at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery has established itself as a leading center for brain tumor research and clinical care. Its multidisciplinary approach, groundbreaking research, innovative treatments, and commitment to education make it a beacon of hope for patients and a driving force in advancing our understanding and management of brain tumors.