Lifespan announces ‘breakthrough’ in brain cancer research

RESEARCHERS from the Lifespan Cancer Institute announced results of a cancer vaccine clinical trial that showed the vaccine can improve survival rate of patients with brain tumors. / COURTESY RHODE ISLAND HOSPITAL

PROVIDENCE – Lifespan Cancer Institute researchers Friday announced they have made “a breakthrough” in treating patients with an aggressive brain cancer.

Researchers said the Phase III trial of the DCVax-L vaccine showed improved the survival rates in patients with newly diagnosed and returning glioblastoma, the most common and most lethal form of brain cancer.

Dr. Henrich Elinzano, neuro-oncology medical lead at the Lifespan Cancer Institute and Dr. Steven A. Toms, director of the brain tumor and stereotactic radiosurgery program director at Lifespan and vice chair of the department of neurosurgery at Rhode Island Hospital presented the results alongside Dr. Wafik El-Deiry, director of the Brown-Lifespan Joint Program in Cancer Biology.

“Prior to this study, there were only two standard treatments,” Elinzano said. “It’s a breakthrough in the sense that the results are pretty impressive compared to the standard that’s being used and it’s a very innovative approach.”

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Glioblastoma, while not particularly common, is an extremely aggressive and lethal form of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. Current treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The survival rate is typically 15-17 months from diagnosis.

During the trial, Lifespan researchers saw that newly diagnosed patients treated with the DCVax-L vaccine survived for a median of 22.4 months from surgery, several months longer than typical treatment. The 5-year survival rate for patients also increased from 5% to 13%.

To create the vaccine, protiens taken from the tumors removed from patients are combined with immune cells from patient’s blood, Toms said. Injections were done three times during the first month and a few times in the following months for a maximum of 10-12 inoculations, which Toms said are very similar to the flu and COVID-19 shots.

The vaccine also showed minimal side effects, which Elinzano and Toms said “is very promising”

“This is a very easy protocol, has very limited toxicity that we’ve seen thus far, minimum immune reaction problems,” Toms said. “It’s potentially a huge breakthrough for patients with glioblastoma and potentially with other cancers down the road.”

While glioblastoma affects approximately three for every 100,000 people, rates are higher than average in Rhode Island. At Rhode Island Hospital alone, doctors see about 60 to 70 cases per year.

The Lifespan Cancer Institute was one of the 94 sites for the trial, which spanned across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. The study, funded by Maryland-based biotechnology company Northwest Biotherapeutics, Inc., involved 331 patients, including 17 in Rhode Island.

Results of the trial were first published in November 2022 in the cancer journal JAMA Oncology. Toms said he hopes the Food and Drug Administration will approve the treatment in the next year.

“This is the first time in nearly 20 years that a Phase III trial of a systemic treatment has shown such survival extension in newly diagnosed glioblastoma, and the first time in nearly 30 years that a Phase III trial of any type of treatment has shown such survival extension in recurrent glioblastoma,” Lifespan said.

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