Although malignant brain tumors rarely spread elsewhere in the body, they continue to grow within the brain. As the tumors increase in size, they cause increased pressure within the skull, resulting in a cascade of symptoms ranging from headaches to seizures and loss of vision.
The preferred course of therapy involves surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. In many cases, though, surgery is not an option because the tumor is too deep or located too close to critical brain regions. But, says Prescott, even with surgery, the outlook is bleak. “Glioblastomas spread by extending tendril-like growths deep into surrounding tissue. It’s almost impossible to remove the entire tumor.” As a result, of every 50 patients diagnosed with glioblastomas, only one will live five years.
At OMRF, Drs. Rheal Towner and Robert Floyd are exploring a new therapy they hope will change those statistics. Working with an experimental compound, they’ve performed a series of tests using glioblastomas that have been implanted in rodents. “In mice and rats, we’ve seen a dramatic shrinkage in tumors,” says Floyd, who holds the Merrick Foundation Chair in Aging Research at OMRF.
The next step, says Towner, “will be to initiate clinical trials to study the drug’s efficacy in humans.” The researchers are currently working with the Food and Drug Administration to initiate a trial for glioblastoma patients who have failed standard therapies. “We’d hope to see the experimental drug slow or even prevent the tumors from growing,” says Towner.
“If the drug worked in humans as it has in rodents, it would extend lives,” says Floyd. “And if it worked really well, it might keep the tumors in check indefinitely.”
The good news is that the experimental drug has already gone through multiple phases of human trials and been shown to be safe when it was tested for another clinical indication. But the FDA has yet to okay trials to test the drug’s effectiveness in treating glioblastomas. And even if the trials eventually receive a green light, the drug would have to undergo multiple phases of testing—a process that takes years and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars—before possible FDA approval.
“At this stage, it’s impossible to know how this will play out,” says Prescott. “But right now, a diagnosis of glioblastoma is pretty close to a death sentence. So we owe it to brain cancer patients to keep moving down this road, no matter how many obstacles may lie ahead.”
UNLIKE GLIOBLASTOMA, BREAST CANCER ENJOYS a reputation as a “treatable” cancer. Indeed, if you are diagnosed with the disease, your five-year odds of survival are almost 90 percent. Since President Nixon’s declaration four decades ago, death rates have fallen by almost a quarter. Today, breast cancer claims only 24 victims per 100,000 people.