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Duke researchers develop treatment that triples survival time of brain cancer patients

Kristen Batich, a graduate in the medical scientist training program, was the lead author in a study that has developed a new treatment for glioblastoma.

In a study published by Nature, a group of Duke researchers have developed a new treatment for glioblastomas, which represent almost one in five of all primary brain tumours. The researchers organised a trial that administered a dendritic cell vaccine with high doses of a chemotherapy drug known as temozolomide. Among the 11 patients in the study, the median survival time was 41.1 months - a staggering increase from 14.6 months for patients given the standard treatment. 

"There were striking immune responses to the study regimen and very striking survival times for patients with this type of tumour," said lead author Kristen Batich, a graduate in the medical scientist training program.

She noted that the median progression-free time - the amount of time it takes, on average, for the tumour to begin growing again after treatment - lengthened to 25.3 months, instead of the typical eight months observed in patients given the standard treatment. Batich also noted that four of the 11 patients were long-term survivors "without any signs of tumour progression at the time of analysis."


She explained that the idea behind the novel treatment was to retrain the immune system to selectively target proteins within the tumour itself.


“It’s an opportune moment to introduce your specific vaccine that you’re looking to train the immune system on, because essentially, the host is void of other competing immune cells,” Batich said. “It gives your immune system a signal to go fight that specific target—put all hands on deck—to go off and fight whatever you’ve introduced into the immune system.”

The vaccine given to the glioblastoma patients targeted a cytomegalovirus protein often present in the tumour itself but absent in other brain regions. Another distinction in the treatment was the intense dose regimen of the vaccine—instead of receiving the chemotherapy for five consecutive days, patients were given the drug for 21 straight days.

Batich explained that this experimental treatment also differed in several ways from the typical standard of care for newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients, which is already "pretty aggressive."

Following the diagnosis, doctors typically attempt surgery to remove as much of the glioblastoma tumour as possible, she noted. The patient is then subjected to a six-week course of chemotherapy with daily temozolomide and concurrent radiation therapy. After this, the chemotherapy is reduced slightly to monthly cycles until the tumour rebounds and the patient dies.

“Even with this very aggressive radiation and concurrent chemotherapy regimen, 50 per cent of the patients do have a median survival time of about 14.6 months,” Batich said.

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