The Leonard Attman Family Supports Brain Tumor Research

September 1, 2022 by Samantha Mitchell

Gift establishes the Phyllis L. Attman Meningioma Lab

Back in the 1990s when Phyllis Attman became dizzy playing tennis and decided to seek treatment, she didn’t expect to hear she had a meningioma, a type of brain tumor.

Meningiomas arise from the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord and were at one time very rarely studied due to the success rate of removal via craniotomy. But depending on their location or malignancy, these tumors can still be life threatening.

Although the prospect of brain surgery is always alarming, Mrs. Attman entrusted Donlin Long, MD — head of Neurosurgery at the time — and Johns Hopkins to monitor and eventually remove her meningioma. The Attmans thought this successful surgery would be the end of their experience with brain tumors. However, about twenty years later, daughter Wende Attman Levitas visited her neurologist about recurring headaches and discovered the same type of tumor in nearly the same location.

“Seeing my mom have this surgery and remembering what it was like, I wasn’t that scared when I was told I needed to have the same surgery,” says Attman Levitas. “I was very confident that I was in the best place to have it done.”

After seeing two meningiomas in as many generations in their family, the Attmans wondered whether genetics came into play and how research into the field could benefit others who are at risk. Over a decade ago, Leonard Attman asked his daughter’s neurosurgeon — Long’s successor, Henry Brem, MD — what was needed to support this research and discovered a lack of necessary funding.

The Attmans realized their family could do something to help and made an initial gift that led to discovery of a gene associated with more aggressive behavior in meningiomas and new treatment options based on targeting this gene. With this progress, Mr. Attman decided to increase his family’s support. His latest gift establishes the Phyllis L. Attman Meningioma Lab at Johns Hopkins, named to honor his wife on her 88th birthday. Building on the research started by the Attman family’s support in 2009, this latest gift will fuel ongoing laboratory-based scientific efforts targeting brain tumors and exploring the genomic revolution of meningiomas.

“We were very taken aback by all of the men and women who were involved in the research,” recalls Mr. Attman, who hopes the laboratory will be a legacy to his entire family. “I was overwhelmed with the idea of wanting to do this for my wife for her special birthday.”

“Hopefully with the research being supported by the Attmans, we’ll be able to develop treatments for people as an alternative or supplement to the way we currently operate,” says Brem, also the Harvey Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery. “I’m hopeful that we will have a better understanding of the genetics, and that we’ll find new targets for treating meningiomas in better, simpler, and less invasive ways.”

Chetan Bettegowda, MD, PhD, the director of the Johns Hopkins Meningioma Center and the Jennison and Novak Families Professor of Neurosurgery, leads research in the lab.

“In the laboratory, we’re looking at what immune and genetic factors impact the clinical behavior of meningiomas like why some reoccur and others don’t,” says Bettegowda. He reports that the research so far has shown that tumors that don’t respond as well to targeted therapies are molecularly different than those that do, which affects the interaction with surrounding immune cells. “We’re very excited that in the coming months we’ll be able to further unravel those interactions.”

Philanthropy in an area which has been historically underfunded puts the research coming out of the Phyllis L. Attman Meningioma Lab on the cutting edge. Based on the excitement around the lab’s recent findings, the Johns Hopkins Meningioma Center has been able to attract even more philanthropy and grants to further understanding of meningiomas.

“People don’t understand that it’s not just about an operation. It’s about researching to know that the operation will be successful,” says Mr. Attman, who adds his family wants this research to help other people who are similarly at risk.

“My parents and my wife’s parents indoctrinated in us that you do what you can at the stage of life that you are,” remembers Mr. Attman. “But to give back was the most important thing.”

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Topics: Friends of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Research, Neurosurgery, Fuel Discovery, Promote and Protect Health