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Injecting new ideas into brain tumor therapy

Could a personalized vaccine help treat people who have brain tumors? This fall scientist John Ohlfest, Ph.D., and pediatric neuro-oncologist Christopher Moertel, M.D., are launching a clinical trial to find out.

The therapy is used as part of a treatment regimen for medulloblastoma, ependymoma, and glioblastoma. (Most vaccines work to prevent disease, but this vaccine is designed to treat existing disease.)

While a patient undergoes surgery to remove as much of the brain tumor as possible, Ohlfest makes remaining cancer cells more sensitive to an immune system attack. He creates a vaccine made with dendritic cells (a type of cell that directs the body’s immune responses against specific targets) from the patient’s blood and a lab-cultivated brain tumor antigen.

The combination is designed to coax a patient’s own immune system into attacking and killing any remaining cancer.

The therapy builds on another therapy that was tested in dogs with brain tumors—most notably Batman, profiled in the spring 2009 issue of the Medical Bulletin—just two years ago.

The Phase I clinical trial is open to both adults and children who have these specific types of brain tumors. Another Phase I trial, which Ohlfest expects to open this winter, will use a similar therapy to treat a type of tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma.

Ohlfest is excited that the research has moved ahead so quickly. He credits a great lab team, connected colleagues, and funding from numerous sources, including the Children’s Cancer Research Fund and the Masonic Cancer Center’s Cancer Experimental Therapeutics Initiative, for the progress.

“We worked very hard to accelerate this therapy into the clinic,” he says. “It’s a great accomplishment for our University.”

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