Promising Brain Tumor Vaccine

Some San Francisco surgeons are using brain tumors to create special vaccines that they believe will extend the lives of the same patients those tumors are killing.

Some consider it a miraculous experiment, while others argue that it's too good to be true. But retired police Officer Barbara Hammerman calls it her last resort. At 46, she has lost her vision because of her brain tumor.

Hammerman is not alone. One in 174 men and women will be diagnosed with cancer of the brain and other nervous system during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

"If I go to this side, I can see all of this OK," she said while moving her hand back and forth in front of her face. "But right there? I can't see anything. I can't see my hand at all."

Hammerman used to enjoy a healthy and athletic life. She craved the excitement of sports and the San Mateo, Calif., police department where she worked for decades as the first openly gay officer.

"It wasn't my goal to show everybody I was a gay police officer," she said. "I just wanted to be a great cop."

Hammerman worked her way up to lieutenant because she was sharp enough to handle the media on crime cases.

Today, Hammerman grasps for words and can barely piece together simple thoughts. After her brain cancer diagnosis nearly two years ago, she became disoriented and unfocused.

"What am I saying it's difficult to remember things and stuff," she said.

After surgery to remove the tumor, Hammerman's prognosis wasn't very good.

"She was only given nine months to live," said her partner, Frances Grunder.

Hammerman survived those nine months, but more tumors appeared. She received new hope when she met neurosurgeon Andrew Parsa at the University of California, San Francisco.

Parsa is running a clinical trial with 60 patients and a few other surgeons.

They send brain tumors to a biotech company called Antigenics where vaccines are created from an individual tumor's healthy protein, then injected back into the same patient.

"Our hope is that by using our vaccines, we can make the immune system of the patient fight the cancer and, by fighting the cancer, we can give them a long-term cure," Parsa said. "It's exciting. We're seeing something for the first time. It's like man walking on the moon."

But some experts are still skeptical.

"This is a therapeutic vaccine, which is used to stimulate the immune system to fight the disease the patient already has, in this case cancer," said ABC News medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson. "This kind of treatment has not been successful so far. As one expert told me, 'None have crossed the finish line yet.'" When the tumor is removed, Parsa said the space it leaves fills up with spinal fluid. He said each customized vaccine would only work on the patient it came from. It is too soon to tell whether it will work on brains, but it has been effective on some patients with skin and kidney cancers.

"The idea here is that individualized vaccines will be able to stimulate an immune system attack [on] tumor cells without damaging the patient's normal healthy cells and there have been hints of response in trials in several different cancers, such as skin and kidney cancers," Johnson said, "such as brain cancer, will react."

Hammerman figured she had nothing to lose and elected to try the vaccines. "Good Morning America" was allowed inside the operating room where it took Parsa three hours to remove two tumors from Hammerman's brain.

Although Parsa said the tumor was the size of a tangerine, it was a tumor big enough to create more than 20 vaccine doses. Hammerman will be vaccinated with her own tumor protein every two weeks. When the vaccines run out in 10 months, Parsa hopes Hammerman can survive on her own.

"I think we're going to give her a real good chance of fighting this disease. She's definitely a fighter," Parsa said.

Hammerman is home now with Grunder, and is fighting for her future one day at a time. She never dwells on her illness.

"I feel blessed," she said. "I've had such a great life. I loved everything I've done in life. I loved being a cop. I loved being an athlete. I wouldn't change anything."

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the clinical trials funded by the American Brain Tumor Association, but is still waiting to approve the actual treatment.