A Q&A with pediatric neurosurgeon Eric Thompson, MD

Image of pediatric neuroscientist looking at brain scan

What drives someone to devote their career to helping kids survive brain cancer? Brandon Chew, a UChicago graduate student in cell and molecular biology, wanted to find out. As a Eric Thompson, MD, to learn about his clinical and research expertise.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in medicine, and pediatric neurosurgery in particular?

To help people, especially in the context of the biological sciences, which has interested me from a very early age. It was important to me to have a career in which I get to help people, which is always bringing about new challenges, and is intellectually stimulating. I was drawn to pediatric neurosurgery because I get to help kids, who are fantastic to work with. Another reason is I have the opportunity to treat patients encompassing the entire field of neurosurgery.

What are some conditions that you treat and what are challenges to treating patients with malignant tumors affecting the nervous system?

Some main ones are brain and spine tumors, epilepsy, craniosynostosis, congenital spine disorders, trauma and hydrocephalus. A general goal in the field of pediatric brain tumor treatment is to find treatments that are less toxic and are more effective than chemotherapy and radiation. Every tumor is different biologically. Given their location, it can be difficult for chemotherapy treatments to enter the brain. The blood brain barrier is very helpful for keeping pathogens out of the brain, but it also makes it difficult to get medicines in. In some cases, despite large amounts of chemotherapy, some tumors are very aggressive and those treatments are ineffective.

Can you tell me more about your current research and what you’re working on next?

I have a basic science lab that studies pediatric brain tumors and how they can spread throughout the nervous system. A main focus is to treat and prevent brain tumors by immunotherapy – harnessing the body's ability to recognize something as foreign and attack it.

My lab is studying two proteins, ABL1 and ABL2, that we think are responsible for driving the spread of different types of brain tumors –namely medulloblastoma – throughout the nervous system. A long-term goal would be to translate this work into a clinical trial in hopes of preventing or treating disseminated brain tumors. Currently, I am leading a multi-institutional clinical trial involving a peptide vaccine to treat newly diagnosed diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPGs), and recurrent medulloblastoma. Our preliminary data in phase 1 was encouraging enough for the FDA to fund a multi-institutional phase 2 trial. So, we will be enrolling patients for that study over the next four to five years.

How do you view the relationship between your research and your clinical work?

As a physician doing research, I think we are in a unique role to know how problems are affecting patients and how to best treat them. In other words, I am in a position to know how to treat somebody, but I also know how impactful certain treatments are to a patient’s quality of life. I am also in the position to develop something in the lab, and translate that into clinical practice. I hope that by being located at UChicago Medicine, it will be easier for pediatric neurosurgery patients to access services and get the care they need.

Are all brain tumors cancerous?

Not necessarily in kids. Tumors can generally be put into two baskets, one being low-grade, which are benign and slow-growing, and other being high-grade, which are malignant and cancerous. The most common ones are low-grade. High-grade brain tumors in kids are rare in the general population. The problem is that they are very deadly, which is why it is key to figure out how to treat and prevent them.

Eric Thompson

Eric Thompson, MD

Eric Thompson, MD, is Chief of Pediatric Neurosciences for the Chicagoland Children’s Health Alliance (CCHA). Dr. Thompson is a highly skilled surgeon who specializes in neurosurgery and treats complex brain and neurological conditions.

Learn more about Dr. Thompson
Chicagoland Children's Health Alliance logo

Chicagoland Children’s Health Alliance (CCHA)

The CCHA neurosciences team, comprised of specialists in pediatric neurology and neurosurgery, provides integrated specialty expertise across the Chicagoland region, including treatment for epilepsy, brain tumors, concussions and neurocritical care, headaches, spinal deformities, craniofacial anomalies, and movement disorders.

Learn more about CCHA