Developing an effective cancer vaccine has been a frustratingly elusive goal in medicine. Now researchers at Duke University Medical Center believe they might have one, harnessing the most effective and efficient of all disease fighters: the body's own immune system.
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It appears to have helped Ryan DeGrand.
DeGrand was living the American dream. Married with two children, he runs a successful golf equipment company in St. Louis, Mo.
Four years ago, at the age of 32, he started suffering from severe headaches. One weekend, the headaches were so bad he went to an emergency room. Doctors gave him a CT scan and discovered a tumor over his left eyebrow the size of a baseball.
Surgeons removed the tumor, but not the underlying disease. DeGrand was suffering from the most common, and deadly, form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme. About 20,000 Americans are diagnosed with the cancer every year.
"I would cry a little bit here and there that no one would ever see," he said. "The biggest thing that scared me is not being there, leaving my wife with two kids. Those things are going through your head all the time."
DeGrand began radiation almost every day for six weeks and had 20 pills of chemotherapy every night. The median survival time for patients with this cancer is 14.6 months. It was even worse for DeGrand. For patients like him whose cancer expresses a specific protein, EGFRvIII, virtually no one is alive after two years.
His wife, Kathryn, vividly recalls the day doctors broke the news. "They threw a pamphlet at us and said, 'There's nothing. There is no cure to this. We can do what the standard treatment is but after that, we're sorry. There's nothing we can do.' And that was the most devastating day."
Ryan DeGrand would not accept that. He and his wife scoured the country looking for experimental treatments, which led them to the Duke University Medical Center. Doctors there were testing a vaccine to prevent those brain tumors from re-forming.
CLICK HERE for a list of clinical trial sites offering this vaccine for patients newly diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme.
"The vaccine consists of a small, harmless bit of the tumor, and that educates the immune system to target the cancer cells," said Dr. John Sampson, a neurosurgeon at Duke who helped develop the treatment.
So once a month, DeGrand has been flying from St. Louis to Durham, N.C., to receive the injection. Because the vaccine is so targeted there are no side effects.
"The only thing that I get after the injection, there is some swelling in the area," he said.
Neurosurgeon Sampson said, "This component of the tumor that we give the patient doesn't exist anywhere in the normal adult body. And so when we educate the immune system, we really educate it to be very specific, like a sniper's bullet, to take out just the tumor itself."
That same target protein is seen in some breast cancers and head-and-neck cancers, raising the possibility of expanding the therapy, he said.
So far, at least 50 patients with brain cancer have received the vaccine.
"We've got patients that are four, five, six years now with this. These patients don't live past a year, usually," said Sampson, who receives licensing and consulting fees from the manufacturer of the vaccine, Celldex.
The vaccine is now being tested at more than 20 hospitals across the country in a Phase III clinical trial. It is too soon to call it a cure but it has provided real hope.
For Ryan DeGrand, the vaccine is allowing him to savor what he often took for granted.
"Life for me has changed completely," he said. "The way I look at life … the most important thing for me now is my wife and kids. And, hopefully, every night I think about it. I want to be a part of it."