“Brain cancer” — those two words can make even the bravest person shudder. Indeed, it’s a serious form of a very serious disease, but there could now be a way to treat or help prevent even the most dangerous type thanks to a new vaccine developed by California researchers.
A “glioma” is one of the most lethal types of tumors. It can actually turn up in different parts of the central nervous system, such as in the spine or the optic nerves, but the most common area affected is the brain. Symptoms of a brain glioma include nausea/vomiting, reoccurring headache, seizures, and intracranial pressure, which can result in cranial nerve problems. Cranial nerves are those that are rooted in the brain, which are active in sensory perception and movement. So, for example, this type of tumor could mean that your sense of smell goes out of whack.
A major issue with gliomas is that even when removed surgically they tend to come back. The aggressive nature of this tumor and its location means that the typical patient will succumb to the cancer within six months.
That’s why researchers are working so hard to find a treatment and, someday, hopefully a cure. Case in point — a recent study done at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center.
This was a very small study, only involving six people, who were the average age of 60, with gliomas that had come back more than once. After surgically removing the patients’ tumors, the researchers sent them to a biotechnology company, Antigenics, Inc. There, certain substances called “heat shock proteins” (HSPs) were taken from each of the tumors. In a normal cell, these proteins — a.k.a. “stress proteins” — help shield it from extreme environmental situations, such as cold, heat, and lack of oxygen.
HSPs also help a cell’s other proteins maintain their proper shape and to move to the right location within the cell. In a cancerous cell, it is thought that HSPs start the process that sends the cell’s abnormal peptides to the surface, basically signaling to the immune system that the specific cell is diseased and needs to be destroyed.
The UCSF researchers injected each patient with HSPs from their own specific glioma every other week. Now, a full year after the patients had been diagnosed with the brain tumor, five out of six are still alive. Only one patient passed away from the cancer, and that occurred at the five- month mark. In fact, one of the people in the study has no current signs of the brain cancer.
These results are amazing, considering that the average person with a glioma only lives six months after its onset.
In blood tests, the researchers found that the patients’ bodies had developed immune cells specifically designed to take out their type of brain cancer. The UCSF researchers believe that the injection of the glioma’s HSPs help teach the immune system how to flag the cancerous cells that need to be eradicated in the brain. So, the injection of heat shock proteins could have the potential to work as a treatment and vaccine against gliomas.
However, as this study was quite small, more research on a larger scale obviously needs to be done before this can be considered an effective alternative to chemotherapy.