Big Ideas

Michelle Monje, M.D., Ph.D.

When a cancer researcher chooses their area of expertise, there is usually a story that led them there. For many, it’s a family member or friend who battled a specific cancer, or perhaps an area where their talent shined most brightly. For Dr. Michelle Monje of Stanford Medicine, it was an experience with a young girl while still an M.D. & Ph.D. student at Stanford that led her down her now very promising career path.

Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is a universally fatal brain cancer that affects around 300 children each year in the U.S. Monje had the opportunity to care for a young girl who was battling DIPG as a student, and it cemented her career path. “She was a vibrant, previously healthy, lovely little girl and this disease took her from the world,” said Monje. “Once I saw how horrific this brain cancer was, I had to focus my efforts toward fighting it.”

She did just that. After studying neuroscience as a Ph.D. student and neurology as a medical resident, Monje took a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer biology and a neuro-oncology clinical fellowship before starting her own lab at Stanford. She is now a pediatric neuro-oncologist specializing in DIPG.

Monje’s research is focused on learning more about how the healthy brain develops during childhood, and how brain cancers can hijack these processes. Since gliomas, like DIPG, take advantage of the activity of normal brain cells, they have been working to determine exactly which molecules make the cancer grow and how to interrupt this “malignant subversion of brain activity,” as she puts it.

“Funding from organizations like the V Foundation is critical to do the high-risk, high-reward experiments that can be transformative for therapy.” – Michelle Monje, M.D., Ph.D.

“DIPG and other gliomas of childhood arise in particular locations at specific ages, indicating that these cancers arise when something goes wrong during childhood brain development and that gliomas may take advantage of signals normally meant to promote growth and plasticity of the developing brain,” said Monje. “In our V Foundation funded work, we have discovered a promising new therapeutic strategy that disrupts this crucial fuel for brain cancer growth.”

This discovery could be a game-changer for how gliomas such as DIPG are treated. Targeting the factors in the “tumor microenvironment” that help the cancer grow could prove to be an important therapeutic strategy that compliments traditional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. “A very exciting realization emerging in cancer research right now is that the nervous system is a critical component of the tumor microenvironment,” said Monje.

These types of discoveries simply don’t happen without investigative researchers being funded for bold and outside-the-box experimentation. “Funding from organizations like the V Foundation is critical to do the high-risk, high-reward experiments that can be transformative for therapy,” said Monje.

The hope is that more research can lead to more effective therapeutic strategies, which can then lead to cancer therapies with reduced lasting side effects.

More on Dr. Monje’s Research