Glioblastoma clinical trial uses immunotherapy in fight against the deadliest brain cancer

Immunotherapy drugs often will seek to unblock the checkpoint, which suppresses the body's immune system, unmasking the cancer cell as a target for the body to fight.

Louisville researchers are turning their success with immunotherapy toward a new foe — the deadly glioblastoma brain cancer.

Renato V. LaRocca, M.D., a neuro-oncologist and cancer medicine specialist with Norton Cancer Institute, is working on new treatments that use immunotherapy to turn the body’s immune system against the cancer. Norton Healthcare is among several institutions in the country offering ongoing clinical trials for glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma cells tend to reproduce quickly and are supported by a large blood vessel network. The cancer also can come back after treatment.

“For many reasons, glioblastoma is nearly impossible to cure. We can never truly remove every single tumor cell from the brain during brain tumor surgery,” said David A. Sun, M.D., Ph.D., neurosurgeon with Norton Neuroscience Institute. “After surgery, we rely on radiation treatments and chemotherapy medicines.”

Why immunotherapy is important to glioblastoma treatment

Most cancer-fighting medicines can’t get into the brain, according to Dr. Sun. The best medicine for glioblastoma can enter the brain but only works on a portion of glioblastoma cells. Following current treatment plans, most patients survive just 15 months after their diagnosis.

Dr. LaRocca and others “are trying to utilize a strategy of having the brain’s own natural immune system fight the tumor cells for us,” Dr. Sun said.

The effort focuses on checkpoints — molecules that suppress the body’s immune response. Cancer cells sometimes use the checkpoints as a way to slip through the immune system unharmed. Immunotherapy drugs often will seek to unblock the checkpoint, unmasking the cancer cell as a target for the immune system.

Norton Neuroscience Institute

The Norton Neuroscience Institute team of nationally recognized neurologists, neurosurgeons and neuropsychologists provide innovative care tailored to the individual needs of our patients.

“Checkpoint inhibitors, such as PDL-1, are showing great promise against lung cancer, melanoma and other cancers. Their role in primary brain tumors is under investigation,” said Dr. LaRocca, who added that Norton Cancer Institute also is conducting a series of experimental vaccine trials for newly diagnosed and recurrent glioblastoma.

“Health care research is critical to producing new and innovative medications, devices and technologies that save lives and improve quality of life,” said Stephen Wyatt, M.D., vice president of Research for Norton Healthcare. “Trials like these ensure the people in our region have access to evolving clinical science.”

The disease has made headlines over the past few years when Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Edward Kennedy and Beau Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, lost their lives to glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma symptoms can include headache, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness, as well as weakness, speech difficulties and memory issues.

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