It’s Personal: Dr. Nader Sanai
Dr. Nader Sanai, director of the Ivy Brain Tumor Center, is an internationally recognized neurosurgical oncologist with clinical and research expertise in the treatment of all brain tumors. Most recently, he pioneered a paradigm-shifting concept of Phase 0 clinical trials in neuro-oncology, searching for a cure to brain cancer through personalized care in a fraction of the time and cost associated with traditional drug development.
But Dr. Sanai’s experience with brain cancer doesn’t date back to the start of his career. It began at a young age, when his Aunt Zhilla was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. “My introduction to this world was not in medical school and it was not in the laboratory,” Dr. Sanai said. “It was as the nephew of the person going through it, and a member of the family that had never seen anything like this before.”
As a child, Dr. Sanai watched his mother’s sister go through her battle, which lasted several years. Like most families, glioblastoma wasn’t something his had any experience with, so the expertise of her care team was crucial. “I don’t think we were under the illusion that it was going to end well, but it was so reassuring to have someone who you could always trust to navigate the waters,” Dr. Sanai said.
As his aunt Zhilla went through the experience, and eventually succumbed to the disease, Dr. Sanai found himself inspired to follow a similar path of the neurosurgeon who cared for his aunt. “Fast forward several years later to undergraduate at UCSD, when I knew medicine was in the cards, but I didn’t know what particular aspect of medicine. That experience witnessing my aunt’s treatment very much informed this decision,” Dr. Sanai said. “And to this day, I still think about it and refer to it, and think of it as an archetype of how the experience should be for each of our patients.”
“This is why there’s so much urgency in what we do, because every moment that passes, there’s another Zhilla who is just engaging this for the first time, and there’s another family like mine that is walking through this valley,” Dr. Sanai explained. “And we have to take them one at a time. There’s no time to waste.”
Dr. Sanai navigates his patients with his family’s experience in mind —he encourages the same level of care and understanding. “We make sure that this is not just about cutting-edge science and unlocking the latest drug cocktail, or changing the way clinical trials are done,” he explained. “We make sure that the family understands the steps, that they are on board, that we are supporting them as they deal with the realities of it. We have to help them navigate it, just like my Aunt Zhilla’s care team helped us navigate this to the best of their ability back then.”
In 2019, Dr. Sanai’s family was faced with heartache again, as his cousin Farshad also developed glioblastoma. “The experiences were identical … The same upheaval all over again,” Dr. Sanai said. “The difference being that back then, I’m looking from the outside in, at the process. This time, the people treating him were my friends and colleagues.”
Even though Farshad lost his battle, Dr. Sanai has not lost hope. “His tumor happened at a time when we still didn’t have the answers, but that will not be the case forever,” he said. “And that’s what we’re here to change. This change will happen.”
Driven to continue fighting this battle, Dr. Sanai is the principal architect of the Ivy Center’s innovative Phase 0 clinical trials program. Together with a multidisciplinary team of scientists, clinicians, and nurses, Dr. Sanai specializes in identifying new, first-in-class therapeutic agents that are a match for the individual biologies of brain tumor patients. The Ivy Center’s precision medicine program is the first of its kind in neuro-oncology and reflects Dr. Sanai’s commitment to push the envelope for brain tumor patients around the world.
“These personal experiences were painful, but also introspective moments, hitting very close to home. And I think people who know me best know that I take this very personally, this work, this disease,” Dr. Sanai said. “This is not an intellectual exercise for me. This is a fight for our lives.”
Click below to watch a video of Dr. Sanai’s story.
Have you been personally impacted by brain cancer? We welcome you to share your story on social media using the hashtag #itspersonal and tag the Ivy Brain Tumor Center. We will share as many as we can to support this movement as we work to build awareness and help those suffering from glioblastoma and other aggressive brain tumors.
Click here to learn more about why the fight against brain cancer is personal to the team at the Ivy Center.