Lifewatch: Brain Tumors

DURHAM -- Senator Ted Kennedy's brain tumor diagnosis and recent surgery have stirred questions about the best way to treat the disease.

Now, cancer experts are talking about a brain tumor vaccine that attacks malignant cancer cells.  The vaccine is in the trial stages.

About two years ago, life took an unexpected turn for James Taubert when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

"My biggest fear was the kids without a father and my wife without my income.  Dying really never entered my mind," said Taubert.

Taubert was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most common and deadly type of brain tumor.

"One doctor came in and said I had 11 months, and I think a day or so later another doctor came in and said I had six months," said Taubert.

Taubert had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  He is also participating in a clinical trial testing of an experimental brain tumor vaccine.  The drugs are designed to boost the body's immune system to kill malignant cancer cells that have a certain protein.

"We're educating the immune system to recognize this protein anywhere in the body that it occurs. That allows our white blood cells to get excited about finding this protein, and when they find it they kill the cells that have this protein on the surface," said Dr. John Sampson of Duke University.

23 patients have participated in the study at Duke University. Each had glioblastoma with the specific protein and had been treated with standard therapies.

Then, they received a vaccine injection every month along with chemotherapy.

"Compared to historical controls, or other patients like these patients, these patients are living twice as long," said Dr. Sampson.

So far, Taubert has been injected with the Vaccine 19 times.

"There's no tumor to be seen on my MRI, I've been very very lucky," said Taubert.

The vaccine is not FDA appproved and it can't help all patients.

However, doctors hope the research will transform brain cancer into a chronic disease, allowing patients to live with it for years.

To participate in the trial you have to have a malignant brain tumor with a specific protein that is found in about 30% of all cases.

Normally, chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, but in this case, it appeared to help the vaccine fight cancer cells.

Reported by Kristy Ondo