I remember three things about the day my husband’s neurosurgeon told me that the tumor in his brain was malignant. One, I remember half my vision going gray—as if my body hit a roadblock processing the news. Two, I remember wondering how it was possible for other people to be going on with their normal life when the universe had just shattered. And three, I remember hope.
The hope that I remember was made up of cutting-edge research and emerging treatments, and the knowledge that every day researchers are getting closer to a cure.
Recently, a doctor in Tokyo made headlines. He announced groundbreaking new research that might be a gamechanger for malignant brain tumor patients.
He announced hope.
Brain Tumor Facts
Brain tumors, particularly malignant brain tumors, are vicious. (I know that’s not a fact, but it’s undeniably true.) They destroy the part of you that makes you you. The brain controls your sense of humor, the muscles that lift your lips into a smile, and the way you talk to your children. When a brain tumor attacks, it attacks you wholly—body and mind.
According to braintumor.org, approximately 84,000 people will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year. About 25,000 of those will be malignant.
For a malignant brain tumor, the five-year survival rate is a measly 36 percent. For those who’ve been diagnosed with glioblastoma (GBM), the most commonly occurring primary malignant brain tumor, the five year survival rate is just 7.2 percent. The median survival is just eight months.
A diagnosis of GBM is, in too many cases, a terminal diagnosis. If the standard of care treatment fails (which it often does against GBM) and the tumor returns, patients and their families frequently turn to clinical trials. They offer hope in a situation where hope is in short supply.
Using Viruses To Treat Brain Tumors
The trial research coming out of Japan is early—but encouraging. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare “granted conditional and time-limited approval to teserpaturev (G47∆; Delytact) for the treatment of patients with malignant glioma.”
The drug, developed by Professor Todo Tomoki at the University of Tokyo Institute of Medical Science, uses a genetically engineered herpes virus to attack brain tumor cells. The virus is specifically manipulated to ensure it replicates only in cancer cells and destroys them.
According to Todo, the one-year survival rate of brain tumor patients who received standard therapy for recurring malignant brain tumors is around 15 percent. (Put in other words, that means only 15 percent of patients survive to the one mark after a tumor recurrence—this cancer is vicious.)
In clinical trial, his drug produced stunning results. The rate for patients who received the viral therapy in clinical trial skyrocketed to an unbelievable 92.3 percent. (In other words, nearly everyone survived to the one-year mark.) OncLive described the results as having “effectively eliminated human glioblastoma–derived cancer stem cells.”
The new treatment developed by Todo is not novel in its approach. In the U.S., other viruses have been used in a similar way to treat malignant brain tumors, including the polio virus. (This is the clinical trial that my husband was involved in after the standard of care failed him.) The FDA has granted fast track designation to a number of these therapies. According to nature.com, these therapies have “shown complete durable responses in ~20% of GBM patients who received virus intratumorally.”
Twenty percent was exciting. My husband and I jumped at the chance to enroll in a trial that gave even a little bit of hope. A trial with a 92.3 percent success rate? We’d have walked across the ocean for that amount of hope.
Treatment Could Be Used On Other Cancers, As Well
Though brain tumors are unlike other tumors for a variety of reasons (including the difficulty of crossing the blood-brain barrier and the fragile mind-body connection that the tumor destroys), Teserpaturev has potential to treatment other solid tumors. It’s “showed efficacy in all in vivo solid tumor models that had been evaluated, which included glioma, breast cancer, prostate cancer, schwannoma, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, colorectal cancer, malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, and thyroid carcinoma.” The drug is now in a Phase 1 trial for olfactory neuroblastoma.
Unfortunately, my husband’s brain cancer was too fast acting, too insidious, and he died before a cure was found. But one day, a cure will be found. Dr. Todo’s treatment is still very early, but it’s wildly encouraging. It’s discoveries like this one that bring us closer to finding a cure to a disease that devastates in a way little else does. It’s why every day, brain tumor patients and families have a little more reason to hope—at least that’s what I hope.