Immunotherapy Offers Hope to Brain Tumor Patients

NJ Spotlight News | June 2, 2016 | Health Care
Immunotherapy works by stimulating the body's own immune system to attack brain tumors.

By Briana Vannozzi

“I never, ever expected to make it this far. And yet here I am five years later. That is a big blessing,” said Donna Fabre.

Fabre is the success story doctors were hoping for. The wife and mother was one of the first patients to undergo a new clinical trial of a therapy to treat brain tumors. She was diagnosed with a malignant glioma in 2012. It carried a survival rate of just 14 months.

“I really felt like I should do it because it came back and it sounded like the best alternative that I had,” she said.

Surgery removed the tumor, but it came back less than a year later. That made her eligible for the Phase 1 trial called Toca 511 at JFK in Edison.

“After people had the tumor reoccur, or come back, after they received standard of care which typically included surgery, radiation and chemo, they would undergo a surgical procedure again and we would inject Toca 511 which was a modified virus into the surrounding tissue of the operative cavity,” said Dr. Joe Landolfi.

Dr. Landolfi is one of the authors on this study. This cutting edge gene and immunotherapy uses a virus to infect the brain tumor cells while sparing normal brain cells. It implants a piece of DNA that makes a protein.

“So that when the patient takes a medication, it’s converted to chemotherapy only in the tumor cells. Thus killing the tumor cell. The virus itself doesn’t kill the brain tumor cell, so once the brain tumor cell is killed by chemotherapy, the virus can then go on and infect another dividing brain tumor cell,” he explained.

Immunotherapy works by stimulating the body’s own immune system to attack the tumor. Dr. Landolfi says the results mean huge possibilities.

“For recurrent glioblastoma as in the case of the patients who are on this trial, the survival is about nine months — 32 to 36 weeks — so my patients who participated in the trial at the onset are now going on 30 months since the recurrent disease, five years since their initial diagnosis so it’s quite remarkable,” he said.

“This works. This has given her quality of life. It hasn’t robbed her of anything. If anything it’s just made our lives better,” said George Fabre.

“My feeling is that a combination of our conventional treatments plus these immune or gene therapies are really going to change the face of the disease and the survival of patients who suffer from the disease,” Dr. Landolfi said.

The success of this trial is a stepping stone for Phases 2 and 3 — and reaching the public.

“In my mind she’s going to make 10 years. I don’t just look at tomorrow or next year, I look at the future and I tell her we’re going to be around,” George Fabre said.

“I have to tell you, I never thought I would make it to five years, never thought I’d make it to five years, yet here I am. Very thankful. Very thankful,” Donna Fabre said.