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August 11, 2008



Instead of choosing between pediatrics, or the brain and nervous system, Dr. Roger Packer of Children's National Medical Center combined them. As a result, he has a very long and fancy title: Executive Director of Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine, and Chairman of the Department of Neurology. But his mission is quite simple: He wants to improve outcomes for the treatment of childhood brain tumors.


He says it's not easy to treat young patients facing complicated diseases, and stresses the importance of weighing risks to benefits in doing trials. "The exciting thing is that child neurology has evolved," he says. Not only are survival rates climbing, but the quality of life is improving. Roger's been a major player in discovering new treatments for children with low grade tumors behind the eyes, and increasing five-year survival rates for children with medulloblastoma, from about 40% to 80 or 90%.


Roger put on his futurist hat (not pictured) and told us he hopes the next decade will see more biologic therapies. "Many childhood brain tumors have specific biological underpinnings," he explains. A paradigm shift may develop away from chemotherapy and radiation, to biologics, he says, which could reverse learning disabilities, an area "we once thought we couldn't touch." It's a transition period, though, and the prudent use of chemo, surgery and radiation saves lives, he says. "Not as many as we want, but we clearly can't throw these treatments away." And biologics, while they don't bring on the nasty side effects, may pose other challenges. They must kill the tumor with smart-bomb precision, and steer clear of the heart and lungs.


As for those rare times when research yields disappointment, Roger has the best possible preparation: He's a lifelong Cubs fan.


Jacqueline M. Duda is a health journalist who writes about (and reads) anything medical. An avid kick boxer and runner, but does occasionally see the the minor league Frederick Keys in her home town. 

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