Peter Chiarelli, MD, DPhil and other surgeons at an operating table

CHLA pediatric neurosurgeon Peter Chiarelli, MD, DPhil, and team are using nanoparticles to deliver more precise tumor therapy.

Research Community

Faculty Spotlight: Peter Chiarelli, MD, DPhil

Peter Chiarelli, MD, DPhil, holds up his hands and slowly interlaces his fingers. “These tumors grow by invasion,” he explains. “They’re interwoven, like a lattice, with the cells of the normal brainstem. Which means removing the tumor is equivalent to removing parts of the brainstem.”

Dr. Chiarelli is describing diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a highly aggressive childhood brain tumor with a 0% survival rate. Because the tumor’s location deep inside the brainstem prevents surgical removal, the pediatric neurosurgeon is harnessing his background in chemistry, physics and materials science to find novel approaches to this devastating cancer.

Peter Chiarelli, MD, DPhil
Neurological Institute

His lab—a partnership with Meenakshi Upreti, PhD, a Senior Scientist in The Saban Research Institute, and senior mentor/collaborator Rex Moats, PhD—has developed miniaturized models of DIPG that simulate the critical microenvironment that real-life tumors reside in.

These models allow the team to study DIPG in a more realistic way and to test hundreds of therapies in a 3D microfluidic chip system. The researchers are also exploring how to use nanoparticles to boost the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

The lab has received multiple grants, including a recent award from the U.S. Department of Defense. “We want to translate what we find at the benchtop into clinical trials,” Dr. Chiarelli says. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

His passion for research began as an undergraduate at Pomona College, when he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory by invitation from a faculty mentor. He became fascinated with using light-matter interactions to investigate the brain and earned a research doctorate in magnetic resonance imaging physics at the University of Oxford.

Today, Dr. Chiarelli continues to collaborate with his former mentor, Pomona College chemist Malkiat Johal, PhD, and Pomona students who assist in his CHLA lab.

“It’s incredibly fulfilling to teach students and help them find their way,” he shares. “Mentorship of undergraduate and medical students who are focused on the biomedical sciences is a key part of our lab’s mission.”

At home, Dr. Chiarelli is involved in another fulfilling endeavor: raising a family. You’ll often find him at the park with his wife and three kids or engrossed in his newest hobby: woodworking.