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Brain cancer treatment revolutionized by immunotherapy

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Over the last 10 years, doctors at Duke University have been working on a vaccine that could revolutionize the way brain cancers are treated.

The diagnosis of glioblastoma - a disease where star-shaped tumors grow from the supportive tissues of the brain – is often a death sentence. Many who receive a diagnosis are dead within two years.

Tumors associated with glioblastoma can grow quickly and cause an increased pressure in the brain. The tumors can cause symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness.

Glioblastoma make up 17 percent of primary brain tumors, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.

Clara Guy, who works as an interior designer living in Morrisville, was diagnosed with glioblastoma earlier this year.

Guy underwent surgery to remove the tumors but the cancerous cells returned.

Doctors gave Guy three years to live.

So Guy signed up for immunotherapy. It’s a 10-year vaccine trial at Duke University Medical Center.

“It’s that much more exciting and inspiring when you have folks who say, ‘Here we are. Here’s the plan. Here’s what we’ve been able to do so far, and here’s what we’re going to learn from even more,’” Guy said.

Doctors said the vaccine is using the body’s own defense mechanisms to attack a foreign invader inside the body.

Dr. John Sampson, a Duke neurosurgeon, said the vaccine has been developed so that it targets and kills cancer cells, specifically ones that cause glioblastoma.

“Those cells get educated and they go throughout the body like sentinels looking for the tumor cells, kind of like mini snipers if you will, and killing off the tumor cells no matter where they are,” Sampson said.

Ryan DeGrand was a pilot patient in the trial 10 years ago. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma at the start of the trial.

He has been cancer free for a decade.

He lives in Missouri but calls Duke University Medical Center his second home. The doctors and nurses have become like a family for DeGrand after 10 years of consistent injections.

“I’ll continue to come here as long as they need me down here,” DeGrand said.

Patients like Guy said the vaccine brings a whole new appreciation to life.

“When you go on a regular vacation and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that vacation that was great! No. It was awesome it was stunning.’ And you become appreciative for a whole new set of things,” Guy said.

Doctors said the handful of patients involved in the immunotherapy vaccine trial are still cancer free, something that is nothing short of extraordinary in the medical community.

The trial is in its third phase, which means it will soon be presented to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If approved, the vaccine would soon be available to anyone across the county.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

Eileen Park

Eileen joined WNCN after years of working as a foreign correspondent. During her time off, she enjoys relaxing with her dogs, reading, and exploring the Triangle. More>>

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