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Spotlight on Dr. Linda Liau of UCLA

In a world full of talented doctors and surgeons, one exceptional individual stands out. Internationally renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Linda Liau has achieved remarkable success in her career, particularly for her work developing a personalized brain cancer vaccine. Let’s look at her contributions to her field and what makes her an exceptional example in healthcare.

Education and Early Career

Dr. Liau began her education at Brown University, where she was awarded BS and BA degrees in biochemistry and political science, respectively. She would eventually receive her medical degree from Stanford University and complete her residency and fellowship in neurosurgery at UCLA. Also at UCLA, Dr. Liau earned a PhD in neuroscience along with an MBA. Despite numerous offers to go elsewhere, she elected to stay at UCLA after the completion of her degrees. It was her mother’s death after battling breast and brain cancer that inspired her chosen field of practice and research. Her mother was just 51 when she passed. Dr. Liau was heartbroken, but also angry that there hadn’t been more progress toward understanding cancer. This experience led to her dual specialization in both neurosurgery and clinical research.

Dr. Liau is currently a tenured professor in UCLA’s Department of Neurosurgery, where she also serves as its chair. This is a notable appointment, as she is only the second woman ever to lead an academic department of neurosurgery in the United States, and the first Asian American woman to do so. Dr. Liau is also the director of UCLA’s Brain Tumor Program, one of the world’s leading centers for brain tumor research and treatment. In her position as chair of the UCLA Department of Neurosurgery, she leads a clinical team made up of more than 60 neurosurgeons, neuroscientists, fellows, residents, and other specialists. In 2018, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the top honors in her field.

Even without her many appointments, honors, and titles, Dr. Liau is a trailblazer in her field: women represent just 6% of all licensed neurosurgeons in the US.

Research Specialties

Dr. Liau has performed more than 2,000 brain tumor surgeries in her lifetime. She attracts patients from all over the world because of her expertise in performing extremely complicated, delicate procedures. In her clinical practice, Dr. Liau is an expert in intra-operative functional brain mapping and using intra-operative imaging for the resectioning of brain tumors. Her research focuses on immunotherapy, gene therapy, the molecular biology of brain tumors, and the development of brain cancer vaccines. For the last 25 years, Dr. Liau has focused particularly on developing treatment strategies for the deadliest of all brain tumor types: glioblastomas.

What Is A Glioblastoma?

A glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive form of cancer that typically occurs in the brain or the spinal cord, formed from cells called astrocytes that provide support to nerve cells. The reason this type of cancer is so lethal is because of the speed and aggression with which it spreads throughout the brain. Though it is possible for glioblastoma to occur at any age, it is more typically found in older adults. Notoriously difficult to treat, there is no cure for glioblastoma, and any treatments available can offer only to slow the progression of the disease and possibly alleviate some of the associated symptoms: nausea, vomiting, seizures, and headaches, among others.

A Brain Cancer Vaccine

Dr. Liau’s research on glioblastomas led to one of the first ever personalized vaccines in the 1990s. She developed a vaccine using a patient’s own tumor cells in combination with their white blood cells, in an attempt to activate the patient’s immune system and prompt it to fight the cancer.

Dr. Liau has spent the years since then continuously refining her brain cancer vaccine, but the basic idea remains the same. She customizes each vaccine to her patient. In her lab, proteins are extracted from each patient’s tumor and dendritic cells are pulled from their blood. These special cells are extremely important in kickstarting the body’s immune system response. By combining them with the proteins from the patient’s tumor cells and injecting the mixture back into the patient, the patient’s body behaves as though it has just encountered an infection, activating the immune system and sending out killer T-cells to seek out the cancer cells and destroy them.

The vaccine’s goal is to wipe out any cancer cells left over after a brain tumor removal surgery. Because of the speed at which glioblastoma spreads, it is crucial to eradicate any remaining cancer cells post-surgery; even the best neurosurgeon in the world can’t remove the cancer cell by cell. Since using the vaccine on her patients, many have lived four to five years beyond the 18-month remaining life expectancy that is typical for glioblastoma patients. One of her patients has even lived nine years beyond that mark. Dr. Liau is dedicated to her work, and her tireless efforts are saving people’s lives and advancing the fields of oncology and personalized medicine. Thanks to her, we may one day have a cure for glioblastoma and other cancers.