Neurons may be the marquee cells of the brain, but glial cells are every bit as essential — and they exist in equal or even greater numbers.

Preserving the health of these important cells — the types that play a major role in maintaining the healthy milieu of the brain, in disease processes, and, when gone awry, can give rise to a deadly type of malignant brain tumor — will be the focus of scientific and medical authorities beginning Sunday during the Fifth International Conference of Glial Biology in Medicine, hosted by the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

The conference is coming to Roanoke, Virginia, for the first time at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center.

“This conference attracts one of the biggest concentrations of leaders in glial biology from France, England, Germany, the United States, and other nations, and it has a new home in Roanoke,” said Harald Sontheimer, the I.D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science and director of the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “For me, it is all about becoming a national and international research center to better understand brain cancer, glia and the immune system, and glial cell contributions to nervous system injury and disease.”

Ultimately, Sontheimer, who is also the executive director of the School of Neuroscience in the Virginia Tech College of Science and a Commonwealth Eminent Scholar in Cancer Research, hopes the effort will lead to new treatments and diagnostics for pressing national health problems.

Taking only gliomas into account, nearly 78,000 patients are expected to be diagnosed with brain tumors in 2016, including 25,000 primary malignant and 53,000 nonmalignant brain tumors, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.

More than 120 researchers, clinicians, and students have registered for the conference, including speakers from other major Virginia universities, Harvard Medical School, Duke University, the Children’s National Health System, and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, among others.

”This meeting represents a major scientific coalescence in Roanoke of some of the very best glial scientists,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.  “Coming on the heels of the recent international Precision Neuroscience Conference held at the research institute last week, it makes a distinct statement to the scientific and medical communities that the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology campus represents a powerful emerging hub for nervous system discovery.”

Friedlander added, “We are very fortunate to have someone of Dr. Sontheimer’s caliber lead this glial conference and serve as the director of the glial center at the VTCRI. His work adds prestige and respect to the brand and international reputation of the VTC neuroscience community. We greatly look forward to hearing the latest advances in understanding the role of glia in nervous system development, function, and disease from the world’s foremost researchers.”