Richard E. Phillips, MD, PhD, a Presidential Assistant Professor of Neurology and member of the Penn Epigenetics Institute, is fairly new to the Penn Medicine family and the city of Philadelphia. Originally from England, Phillips made his way to the United States after graduating from medical school at King’s College London. He completed his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, a residency in Neurology at Harvard/MGH Brigham in Boston, and a fellowship in Neuro-Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where he stayed on as faculty. But in November 2020, he made the move to Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Phillips says he was drawn to Penn for a variety of reasons — but particularly for its efforts in the brain tumor field. “Not only does Penn have a fantastic clinical brain tumor operation for patients, it has the research and infrastructure for top-level science — in addition to infrastructure to translate science into therapies,” Phillips said.
Of course, he was interested in Penn on a personal level as well. His wife, who is a Penn alumna, has several family members in the region. “There’s also the wonderful people here at Penn that impressed me. The faculty, the chair of Neurology, our colleagues in Neurosurgery, Radiation and Medical Oncology at the Brain Tumor Center — they are dedicated and work well together as a team. That was something I wanted to be a part of.”
In this Q&A, Phillips discussed his cutting edge research, the importance of basic science for advancing patient care, and why he’s passionate about mentorship.
What inspired you to go into neuro-oncology?
First, I went into neurology because I find the brain fascinating. It can affect any aspect of your being when your brain isn’t working — your thoughts, vision, strength. Every aspect of one’s humanity is controlled by the brain.
I became a neuro-oncologist since it’s a field where there is a real opportunity to apply fundamental science to advance the field for patients with very difficult diseases. You can go into medicine and it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to fix a patient immediately. But the reality is that for many of them, there are no immediate solutions. Those are the patients I want to dedicate my career to.
How would you describe the current state of brain tumor research?
There are a lot of different types of brain tumors, but my focus is in gliomas — these are the most common and most aggressive primary brain tumor (meaning they arise in the brain).
Although outcomes vary depending on the type of glioma a patient has, I think it is fair to say we really need new, better treatments. Maybe 10 years ago, pancreatic cancer, melanoma, and glioma were three types of cancers which were the amongst the hardest to treat; they were still in the “basement.” Now, melanoma has left the basement, thanks to advances in immunotherapy. Glioma hasn’t moved up yet.
That said, science is moving quickly — there has been some paradigm shifting research in the last 10 years and there is every reason to be optimistic that there will be new therapies on the horizon. For example, there have been great advancements to celebrate when it comes to understanding these tumors. The mutations that cause these tumors are a lot clearer now — and so we know a lot about the pathways that are going wrong. Additionally, new approaches led by the Glioblastoma Multiforme Translational Center of Excellence, including immunotherapies pioneered here at Penn, are being applied to glioma and may be important weapons against this disease.
What research are you currently undertaking?
My lab is interested in how epigenetic mechanisms are involved in the development of brain tumors. These are the processes which control whether specific genes are switched on or switched off. This is very important in normal development and when these epigenetic instructions go wrong, cells can get confused and become cancerous — that’s the biology I study.
We focus on gliomas in children and young adults as it turns out gliomas in these patients have a shared biology where epigenetic processes have gone haywire, and we are working to understand the details of how this makes a cell cancerous.
Recently, we have identified one epigenetic pathway which goes wrong in a type of glioma. We’re now developing a small molecule to target that pathway. When targeted, we are hoping the cells will go back towards a normal development process, and stop the uncontrolled growth characteristic of these tumors.
Why is basic science so important?
I’m a big advocate for fundamental science. It’s important to dig deep into mechanisms in order to understand nature and this will lead to therapies that actually work. The best illustration of this is what we’ve witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic with the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. Some of the work that has taken us out of this disastrous situation is thanks to basic science mRNA research done right here at Penn. This research arose from dedicated scientists working diligently to try and make sense of how nature works, and perhaps could not have been predicted at the time to have this impact. That is why I think it is so important to support scientists’ work and ideas.
It is no different for a physician-scientist in neuro-oncology. If we can really make sense of what goes wrong when brain tumors develop, we will inevitably be able to develop new therapies for our patients.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a scientist and where do you see the greatest opportunities?
Bottom line, one of the biggest challenges as a scientist is getting funding to do the science. That’s what keeps labs running.
It’s also important to know which scientific questions to go after. No questions are easy because understanding nature is difficult. Some questions are more relevant to what you want to achieve (e.g. new treatments), and trying to figure the right questions and path to follow requires very careful contemplation.
But that challenge also creates massive opportunity. You can basically study what you want! I don’t think many people are aware how creative a field science can be — not only can you study what you want, you can use your creativity to approach or answer questions in ways that have never been used before.
Science also provides incredible opportunities for inspiring trainees. You have the ability to train and mentor an entire generation who can carry on advancements in this exciting field. Here at Penn, I’ve gotten involved with initiatives such as the Penn Access Summer Scholars (PASS) program, a pipeline program for underrepresented in medicine students to experience the medical school environment firsthand while building a supportive network.
I’m passionate about mentorship, from high school students to fellows to those just a few years behind me. It bothers me when young, talented people aren’t aware of certain career paths, or they don’t know what’s available to them — people need to be given information so they can think about the right careers for them, get mentorship, and dig into the variety of opportunities science has to offer.