Seeing Brain Cancer From Outside the Box: As a leading neuro-oncologist, Dr. Santosh Kesari thrives on challenge.

December 22, 2015

A physician-scientist with board certifications in neurology and neuro-oncology and a doctorate in molecular biology, Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, has set his sights on curing brain cancers. Understanding the disease in a very innovative way is necessary to do that. And, he believes, collaboration will be the key to success.

Dr. Kesari was recently recruited by Daniel F. Kelly, MD, to join the Pacific Brain Tumor Center and the John Wayne Cancer Institute as director of neuro-oncology, professor of neurosciences and chairman of the department of translational neuro-oncology and neuro-therapeutics.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to expand and further develop the neurooncology program established here by Dr. Kelly, to do translational research, to build a department focused around this high, unmet need and to move the needle in the next decade,” Dr. Kesari says. “It is going to take the will of the whole team, including neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, basic and translational scientists, pathologists, radiologists, immunologists and, most importantly, patients, caregivers and the community.”

At Providence Saint John’s Health Center, Dr. Kesari’s clinical team at the Pacific Brain Tumor Center will see patients with all types of brain cancers and neurological disorders and conduct leading-edge clinical trials of immunotherapy, stem cells and biomarker-based therapies. In the Institute’s laboratories, Dr. Kesari and his lab team will push to understand the molecular basis of brain cancers and neurotoxicity as well as work to develop new drugs for these types of deadly cancers.

He will collaborate with many clinician scientists both within and outside of the Institute, including Dave S.B. Hoon, PhD, director of molecular oncology at the Institute, who is an expert in genomic sequencing of benign and malignant brain tumors, as well as Steven J. O’Day, MD, professor of medical oncology, in the area of cancer immunology and brain metastases.

The Institute’s successful translational medicine approach—understanding cancers by working with patients directly—is aligned with Dr. Kesari’s own belief about the kind of innovative thinking required to tackle the difficult challenges of neurological cancers. That approach starts with the patient first, moves to the lab, then returns to the patient for study through clinical trials.

“We have the tools and technologies with genomics, proteomics [large-scale study of proteins] and imaging to actually do ‘basic science’ in humans,” Dr. Kesari said. “I call it ‘human science.’”

“We are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Kesari join our team here at Saint John’s and the Institute,” Dr. Kelly said. “His approach of novel, safer targeted therapies based on tumor genomic profiling, coupled with our expertise in minimally invasive keyhole surgery, will propel us into a new era of brain cancer care.”

A clinical trial underway during Dr. Kesari’s previous six-year tenure as professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine and director of neuro-oncology at Moores UC San Diego Cancer Center is an example of “human science.” It grew out of an observation of a patient whose brain tumor had responded to an off-label drug,  yet no one understood why.

Dr. Kesari analyzed the molecular aspects of the tumor’s tissue and found a biomarker that predicted why that patient responded to the treatment. The discovery resulted in a clinical trial of the drug in selected patients with that same biomarker. He expects to report positive results from that study in the next year.

Much of Dr. Kesari’s work has emphasized novel drugs for treatment-resistant brain cancers, and his goal in the near term is to help get new medications approved for brain tumors and to develop better clinical predictors of response to current medications. Before joining the Institute, he developed the first cancer stem-cell specific drug for a dangerous form of brain cancer called glioblastoma and for a pediatric cancer called diffuse instrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) that is now in development by a biotech startup.

His team developed a novel nanoparticle (tiny particles that are measured in nanometers) method that may allow available drugs to efficiently penetrate into brain tumors, which is also in clinical development. He has also developed a computerized approach to predicting the drug response to specific tumor types to enable personalized treatments.

Dr. Kesari hopes to build extended networks for clinical trials throughout the Providence health system and at other institutions in Southern California and nationally to advance work on personalized treatments of brain cancers.

His appointment lends great expertise to the newly formed Pacific Neuroscience Institute, a leading West Coast destination and international referral center for minimally invasive surgery and comprehensive care for brain, pituitary and skull base tumors, and sinonasal and orbital disorders. Founded by Dr. Kelly, Chester F. Griffiths, MD, and Howard R. Krauss, MD, Pacific Neuroscience Institute also provides treatment for stroke, facial pain syndromes, adult hydrocephalus and, eventually, movement disorders. The institute has a particular focus on clinical and translational research and fellowship training.

One of the country’s foremost neuro-oncologists, Dr. Kesari sits on scientific advisory boards of many biotech companies, the American Brain Tumor Association, Chris Elliott Fund, Nicolas Conor Institute, Philippine Brain Tumor Alliance, San Diego Brain Tumor Foundation, Therapeutic Solutions International, Inc., and Voices Against Brain Cancer. He’s the author of a textbook on cancer neurology in clinical practice and hundreds of research publications, as well as an inventor of several patents.

Born in Hyderabad, India, Dr. Kesari’s family moved to West Virginia when he was 7. Inspired by his father’s practice there as a primary care physician, Dr. Kesari earned his medical and doctoral degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a residency in neurology at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuro-oncology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. He was on the faculty of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for six years and spent the next six years at UC San Diego.

To support innovative neuro-oncology research at the Institute, please contact Mary Byrnes at 310-582-7102 or