Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics

Translational Neuro-Oncology and Neurotherapeutics Program

Chair and Director
Santosh Kesari, M.D., Ph.D., FANA, FAAN

Faculty Members
Ivan Babic, Ph.D., assistant professor
Elmar Nurmammadov, Ph.D., assistant professor
Marlon G. Saria, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, assistant professor
Junbao Yang, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor
Venkata M. Yenugonda, Ph.D., M.Phil., associate professor

Staff Members
Tiffany M. Juarez, Ph.D., program manager and clinical research administrator
Natsuko Nomura, M.Sc., lab manager and research assistant
Emily R. Schoof, M.Sc., research assistant
Annie Heng, RN, BSN, research nurse coordinator
Najee Boucher M.D., clinical research associate
Jaya Gill, RN, BSN, research nurse coordinator 

About us


To create an innovative research environment that combines basic, preclinical, translational and clinical research.

Vision and goals

Our vision is to develop new therapies for cancer and neurological diseases that will ultimately improve the standard of care across oncology and neurosciences.

Furthermore, we aim to enhance future research collaborations through specialized training, improve research study design and increase research funding among investigators working along the translational neuroscience spectrum.

Translational Neuro-Oncology and Neurotherapeutics (TNON) Program

Our main research areas include:

  • Discovery and development of novel drug candidates for clinically validated molecular targets
  • Biomarker-based drug development for precision medicine
  • Nanotechnology-based approaches to deliver drugs across the blood brain barrier
  • New immunological approaches to diagnose and treat cancer and CNS diseases
  • Integrated information technology, big data and novel biosensor/device development

Research overview

Despite major advances, the development of safe and effective drug candidates for treating cancer, as well as neurodegenerative, inflammatory and vascular diseases in the brain is still a challenge due to the presence of the blood-brain barrier. The TNON program is uniquely positioned to address major challenges in neuroscience and create novel agents to treat CNS diseases. Our team not only makes great discoveries, but also strives to use said discoveries to serve mankind. Our research group always uses patient-relevant platforms, such as clinically validated molecular targets, and we employ patient-derived cancer stem cells and animal models to address specific research areas.

Basic science research

Our basic science research program explores specific aspects of how brain cancer initiates and progresses. Active initiatives include tumor cell metabolism, molecular signaling pathways and nanotechnology in drug delivery.

Preclinical research

Our preclinical research program evaluates discoveries from basic research in preclinical animal models. Patient derived xenograft (PDX) and orthotopic animal models are employed for testing of novel therapeutic agents targeting brain tumors. A major focus is evaluating targeted therapies (small molecules/biologics) and immunotherapies as a single or combination dose with standard of care. We aim to improve the efficacy of drugs by using nanotechnology-based drug formulation and studying antibody-drug conjugates (ADC).

Translational research

We have a large number of initiatives aimed at creating more effective standards of care for treating brain tumors. Successful results developed in the research setting allow potential therapy candidates to move on to evaluation in clinical trials.

Major research initiatives include:

  • Computational modeling and network pharmacology
  • Biomarker development
  • Genomics-proteomics
  • Cancer stem cells
  • Immunotherapy

Clinical research

We combine clinical expertise with leading-edge research to gain an in-depth understanding of each patient’s individual tumor. The partnership between physicians and researchers yields access to superior patient care and optimized treatment. In addition, we conduct ongoing clinical trials that offer more treatment options to eligible patients.

Caregiver research

Assessing the well-being of caregivers is not widely conducted because caregivers are often overlooked as a morbidity of cancer. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), family caregivers provide increasingly complex health care support previously delivered by licensed health care providers. Our caregiver program builds upon previous research exploring variables of caregiver burden within the context of brain tumors to a more global setting through the use of a web-based registry and data repository. In the age of precision medicine, the care of the caregiver is several years behind the powerful advances in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

We seek to identify the factors that cause burden, relationship conflicts in the patient-caregiver dyad or among other household members, and financial toxicity. More importantly, we aim to provide an individualized care plan for caregivers, including respite, supplemental services, and interventions to reduce burden and improve health.

Research strength

Our department has talented and committed scientists with multi-disciplinary research expertise. Our team-based environment fosters innovation to improve outcomes over the long term in both oncology and neurosciences. Moreover, our department collaborates with scientists at John Wayne Cancer Institute (JWCI) and across the world in academia and industry. Our department has unique research strengths that will impact the future of medicine. This highly productive group has published more than 300 peer-reviewed manuscripts and reviews. The department has trained numerous clinical and laboratory postdoctoral scientists for successful careers in medical and pharmaceutical research fields. Some of the innovative discoveries at TNON have helped initiate several startup companies in diagnostic, oncology and neuroscience fields.

Resources overview

The Department of Translational Neurosciences has the state-of-the-art equipment, facilities and resources to advance basic, translational and clinical brain research. The Department provides facilities for cell culture, biochemistry, molecular biology, medicinal chemistry, nanotechnology and immunology. Core facilities located in the building include high-throughput screening, next-generation sequencing service, chemical genomics, FACS and fluorescence imaging. The TNON collaborates with UCLA, USC, Cedars-Sinai and other organizations. The in vivo research is conducted at LA BioMed, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and our facilities in San Diego. Our researchers also have access to facilities and resources spanning departments at JWCI.

Research support and collaborations

The Department has strong collaborative research programs with global and industry partners. We have received grants and awards from the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute (R01, R21…), industry and foundations.

Internship opportunities

We always welcome applications from highly motivated and qualified applicants (graduate students and postdocs). A solid background in neurosciences, cell biology, mouse models of cancer and GBM biology is highly advantageous. We offer well-equipped labs, a stimulating environment and an energetic team. If you would like to join our productive team, please contact or


Critical to our success, philanthropic support allows us to capitalize on our current research to accelerate high-risk, high-reward projects, some of which have resulted in new patents and the formation of biotech companies. Our goal is to cure or make brain cancer a chronic disease in the next five years, as well as prevent and treat all neurologic toxicities.