March 29, 2006 — -- 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.'"