Researcher uses her math skills to fight brain tumors

A little more than 10 years ago, Kristin Swanson, a graduate student in applied mathematics at the UW, began work on an audacious project: an equation to model the growth and spread of brain tumors in individual patients.

Swanson works on gliomas, tumors that are particularly aggressive and difficult to treat, and that are usually considered extremely unpredictable. “But what we’ve done over the last 10 years is gone through excruciating detail-checking with patient data, and we’ve found that this model is a very good model for predicting individual tumor behavior,” Swanson, now a research associate professor in UW Medicine’s Department of Pathology, recently told Seattle’s KING 5 News.

The result of these years of research is a software program that uses a patient’s MRI data to simulate how fast a tumor will grow, and the shape and direction of its spread. It’s frightening to watch one of these computer simulations.

Yet Swanson’s goal is not merely to predict the future but to change it. With foreknowledge of how an individual tumor is likely to grow, doctors may be able to design more effective treatment regimens. Patients who have slower-growing tumors might be able to receive radiation therapy less often in order to minimize side effects, while patients with faster-growing tumors might benefit from smaller doses of radiation administered more frequently. Swanson’s next step, a clinical trial of this customized radiation therapy approach, could begin later this year.