Nina Yoh, MD, PGY-4 Wins ASCO's Conquer Cancer Young Investigator Award

Showcasing Our Latest Research

June 5, 2023

Columbia Neurosurgery continues to innovate neuro-oncology's research frontier, and our residents join us to lead in this revolution through emerging

Dr. Nina Yoh, PGY-4

technologies in the space. Our team's latest accomplishment features Dr. Nina Yoh, PGY-4, who recently received the prestigious 2023 Conquer Cancer's Sontag Foundation Young Investigator Award. Dr. Yoh is recognized for her groundbreaking research on "Using Focused Ultrasound to Open the Blood-Brain Barrier for Liquid Biopsy; A Study in Children with Progressive Diffuse Midline Glioma," which has earned a $50,000 grant.  The Young Investigator Award (YIA) provides funding to promising investigators to encourage and promote quality research in clinical oncology. ASCO’s purpose of this grant is “to fund physicians during the transition from a fellowship program to a faculty appointment.”

Dr. Yoh’s project represents the latest interdisciplinary collaboration between Columbia’s Departments of Radiation Oncology, Biomedical Engineering, Pediatric Heme-Oncology, Pathology and Neurological Surgery. Program mentors include Cheng-Chia Wu, MD, PhD and Elisa Konofagou, PhD with senior guidance from Luca Szalontay, MD, Peter D Canoll, MD, PhD and Jeffrey N Bruce, MD.

Using New Technologies for the Blood-Brain-Barrier

Dr. Yoh's research hopes to develop brain liquid biopsy (LB), the process of analyzing body fluid (blood in this case) to search for cancer cells and small pieces of DNA, RNA, or other biomarkers. This non-invasive process is easy to repeat and superior to surgical tissue biopsies for collecting sequential samples, which may allow clinicians to monitor tumors during treatment and disease progression.

While LB is currently used for tumors in other organs, the brain is protected by the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which restricts many molecules from passing. To make LB more feasible for brain tumors, the team will employ the emerging technology of focused ultrasound (FUS). FUS combines multiple ultrasound beams, and at low frequencies, this can temporarily and safely break up tight junctions to open the BBB. 

A Focus on Neuro-Oncology's Most Challenging Pediatric Cases

The ASCO YIA grant will allow Dr. Yoh to study FUS LB for children with diffuse midline glioma (DMG), the most aggressive form of pediatric brain tumor for which no effective treatments exist. DMG grows in the brainstem of children ages 4-9, resulting in median mortality rates of less than a year. Columbia University has opened a Phase I clinical trial using focused ultrasound to open the BBB to deliver etoposide chemotherapy, one of the first such trials in the country (NCT05762419). Dr. Yoh will be identifying whether this opening of the BBB enhances the detection of tumor biomarkers in patients’ blood samples.

Columbia Neurosurgery’s Evolving Resident Research Model

As technology rapidly evolves, so has Columbia’s Neurosurgery program where residents can now schedule two consecutive years for dedicated research to

pursue scientific inquiry. On the future of her liquid biopsy work using focused ultrasound, Dr. Yoh stated, “The brainstem has to be one of the most dangerous locations in the body to biopsy. With the help of Conquer Cancer’s YIA award, I’m excited to explore the potential of FUS liquid biopsy as a non-invasive technique, particularly in these pediatric cases where there is a dire need for better outcomes. Its non-invasive nature means it can be repeated throughout a patient’s disease course, presenting us with a previously unavailable longitudinal window. The promise of FUS liquid biopsy lies not only in its potential for improved safety but also in its capacity to help tailor responsive and individualized treatments. If successful, we will take better care of these patients.”