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Denzel And Pauletta Washington Lead Brain Crusade

Denzel and Pauletta Washington support brain research at Cedars-Sinai.
By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Denzel Washington has earned fame and fortune, not to mention two Oscars. But Washington and his wife Pauletta are more proud of helping people make a difference.

To that end the Washingtons are long-time members of The Brain Trust which supports the research of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

"About three or four months after we became involved with the Brain Trust, Pauletta's mother suffered a stroke and prior to that my father died of a stroke," says Washington, who serves on the Brain Trust's advisory board. "What Dr. Black is researching encompasses all of the brain disorders and diseases. So there is that connection for us because of our parents."

Washington credits his wife for getting him involved even though at first she was reluctant to take on more fundraising.

"When a good friend of mine first told me about Dr. Black and how they needed to support his pioneering work, I said 'No, no we shouldn't. I am done. I already have too much to do because Denzel and I don't put our names on anything unless we are very involved.'"

But the Washingtons did lend their names and did get very involved.

"I went and heard Dr. Black speak," Pauletta recalls. "I heard his passion and I was instantly sold. So I decided that we had to find more money for him because he was generating incredible success with his work, but the only thing standing in his way was the money. And that was just unbelievable to us because here we are in one of the richest cities in the world. And we can't get him money for his medical research?"

"I support everything my wife does and she knew that we could help Dr. Black," says Washington, who is currently filming his next movie in Mexico. "All the people we know are good people and she knew that if Dr. Black was brought to their attention that we could do something."

And Pauletta has.

Brain matters

For over five years the Washingtons have helped The Brain Trust raise funds for Dr. Keith L. Black and his team's research. Recently, the Brain Trust held Braintastic, a family carnival-style fundraiser at the Warner Brothers Studio back lot.

The benefit honored Brain Trust founder Linda Burrows and was attended by such Hollywood stars as Orlando Jones, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Forest Whitaker, Debbie Allen, Mo'Nique and Angie Everhart.

The money generated by the event will fund research aimed at helping the estimated 50 million Americans afflicted with neurological disorders. There are currently more than 600 disorders that affect the nervous system, including:

  • Stroke
  • Aneurysm
  • Brain tumors
  • Epilepsy
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Autism
  • Alzheimer's
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease)

"The incidence of brain diseases is increasing -- especially when we discuss Alzheimer's," Pauletta notes. "But one of the most shocking things I have learned is that the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children is brain tumors."

"We have made very exciting progress in treating brain tumors," reports Black, who is the director of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "In the 1960's few children survived brain tumors. Today, we can cure up to 55% in many cases."

One of the major advances discovered by Black and his team is a vaccine for brain tumors.

"We have treated over 50 patients in the last five years and we are very encouraged," Black says. "Patients who had a life expectancy of four or five months are still alive today."

Black is one of the country's leading neurosurgeons and has performed over 3000 brain operations to date. According to Black, the Institute will perform over 1000 brain surgeries this year.

"We aren't just about brain surgery," Black says. "We are trying to accelerate the pace of discovery and treatments for disorders that affect the human nervous system. This includes creating advances that can be effective in the treatment of not only brain tumors but also strokes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and other neurological disorders."

According to Black, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with brain tumors. In about 30,000 of these cases, the tumors originate in the brain. The remaining cases are accounted for by cancers that originate elsewhere and later migrate to the brain.

And that's a big problem for neurosurgeons and physicians.

Breaking barriers

Once tumors establish residency in the brain, reaching them with chemotherapy and other medications is prevented by a biological force field of sorts called the blood-brain barrier.

"The capillaries in the brain are very different from those in the rest of the body," Black explains. "They do not allow chemotherapy and other medications to cross into the brain where the tumor is located."

As an example, Black says that 60% of patients who develop lung cancer will also develop a secondary tumor in the brain. But while the response rate to chemotherapy can be as high as 70% for one type of lung cancer, once the tumor moves to the brain that success rate plummets to only 10%."

"We have been able to basically identify the very subtle differences that exist between the capillaries in brain tumor and normal brain capillaries," Black notes. "And we have been able to activate certain molecular receptors in these brain tumor capillaries that allow the increased delivery of drugs across those tumor capillaries. Essentially our technology will no longer allow these tumors to essentially hide in the brain."

This breakthrough also promises to benefit other diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and perhaps even autism.

"We know that 98% of all the drugs that are potentially beneficial to treat disorders in the brain cannot get into the brain in sufficient quantities to be effective," Black adds. "Our technology will allow for a whole new opportunity for treatment that wasn't available before."

Black is also encouraged by advances his team has developed in microwave ablation treatment. This therapy uses focused microwave energy to destroy the tumor without the need to do an open operation. Doctors would be able to destroy the tumor right in the MRI or CT scanner and avoid having a patient undergo major surgery.

"We have tried to create a mini Manhattan Project where we assemble the best researchers and physicians and bring them together here at the institute in the hopes of not only rapidly accelerating the research but also the care for patients," Black says.

"Braintastic is about celebrating both the family and the extraordinary work of Dr. Black and his team at Cedars," Washington says. "Our job is easy - we just have to raise awareness about what is being done and to make sure he has the money to continue making people's lives better."

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 7/7/2003  -  John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 7/7/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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