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Battling Brain Cancer

New promise for treating this grave illness comes from arming a patient’s own immune system to fight it

In January 2013, actress Valerie Harper, known to millions for her portrayal of the quirky Rhoda Morgenstern on the 1970s sitcoms The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, revealed that she suffered from terminal brain cancer. Harper’s sad announcement brought new attention to the medical battle against this vicious foe. Unfortunately, many brain cancers are terminal, but there is some hope in that survival rates may be increasing, thanks to new treatments available to specialists like John Abrahams, M.D., Director of the Brain Tumor Program at Westchester Medical Center.

Indeed, Dr. Abrahams hopes he and his colleagues can help to boost survival rates further as their new program begins participating in national clinical trials that test a new treatment approach: using vaccines specifically created from a patient’s own tumor cells to trigger an immune response that helps the body fight off its own malignancy.

“This is the hot topic in cancer treatment right now,” says Dr. Abrahams. Brain tumors are either benign or malignant, with the former about twice as frequent as the latter. Most malignant brain tumors are symptomatic, says the doctor. “Symptoms can include a severe, persistent headache, seizures, weakness in an arm or leg, and speech or vision problems.”

Benign tumors grow slowly, and it can take a while before symptoms surface. But they are very treatable with surgery and, on occasion, radiation. “We can usually cure a benign tumor,” says the doctor.

Malignancies, of course, are more dangerous. They also come in two types: primary, in which the cancer starts in the brain; and metastatic, in which the cancer starts elsewhere and spreads to the brain. Metastatic cancers are usually amenable to treatment, Dr. Abrahams says. “We can often give patients many additional years through surgery, radiation and chemo-therapy treatments.” Primary malignancies in the brain, however, are a much tougher medical challenge, and their incidence grows with age. (Seventy-three-year-old actress Harper’s rare cancer, known as leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, could be either primary or metastatic, as it may have spread from a previously diagnosed lung cancer.)

Still, the new research in which the Westchester Medical Center program will participate offers the promise of dramatically improved treatment for primary brain cancers too. Dr. Abrahams’ first trial, scheduled to start this summer, will focus on glioblastoma multiforme. “This is the most common and most aggressive primary tumor there is, with an average survival of 15 months,” he says. In the trial, he will send a patient’s tumor tissue and a blood sample to a biotech company to begin the process of formulating the vaccine. The company will extract white blood cells from the patient a few weeks after surgery and put them in contact with the tumor tissue to prompt them to produce a stimulus or “antigen” to fight the cancerous cells. The antigen will then be injected back into the patient to begin their battle against the tumor in the patient’s brain through the production of antibodies.

Results so far are encouraging. The vaccines apparently help to shrink the tumors, so that the new method shows promise of accelerating what is already a favorable trend in survival periods. “We are starting to see some people live four years and more with cancers that once were quickly fatal,” says the doctor. As research continues, more effective vaccines should be created.

“In the next five to 10 years,” says Dr. Abrahams, “I expect we will keep improving survival rates for people with brain cancer.”

Brain tumors, by the numbers

The year 2013 will see an estimated 45,100 new benign brain tumors diagnosed, and about 24,620 new malignant brain tumors.

For every 100,000 people in the United States, approximately 221 have had a diagnosis of brain tumor.

It is estimated that during the year 2010 more than 688,096 people in the United States were living with the diagnosis of a primary brain or central nervous system tumor.

Source: American Brain Tumor Association

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