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Targeting brain cancer

Betty Jayne Dahlberg supports a new approach—vaccines—for treating brain cancer. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Gift supports U doctors’ novel vaccine therapy

Betty Jayne Dahlberg of Deephaven, Minn., has seen the devastating effects of brain cancer firsthand. Her late son-in-law, James “Jimmy” Disbrow, lived with glioblastoma for four years before he died in 2002 at age 54.

Disbrow suffered a great deal in those four years—despite valiant attempts to arrest his cancer through experimental therapies. He was an award-winning figure skater, a career he pursued until 1982, when he founded the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant company with his brother.

Dahlberg says she does not want others to endure a similar ordeal, and she has a special concern for children who suffer from brain cancer.

That’s not surprising, considering she has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“I’m crazy about my grandchildren,” she says. “I can’t imagine how horrible it would be for one of them to deal with something that can’t be cured, because I saw what Jimmy went through. And he was an adult.”

Those concerns inspired Dahlberg to donate $1 million through Children’s Cancer Research Fund to support novel brain cancer research at the University of Minnesota. Her gift will establish the Kenneth and Betty Jayne Dahlberg Professorship, which soon will be awarded to pediatric neuro-oncologist Christopher Moertel, M.D., clinical director of the University’s Pediatric Brain Tumor Program and a member of the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota.

The endowment is named after Betty Jayne and her late husband, Kenneth. The highly decorated World War II flying ace and successful businessman passed away last October. He founded the Miracle Ear Hearing Aid Company, which developed one of the first hearing aids to fit inside the ear. After selling the company in the 1990s, he became a venture capitalist—making one of his earliest investments in Buffalo Wild Wings.

“My husband and I are giving the money,” Dahlberg says of the professorship. “He’s the one who worked hard and made the money, and I supported him. He’d be thrilled with this gift. Absolutely.”

Advancing brain vaccine research

Moertel says the gift will support several aspects of his own and his colleagues’ work, including leading-edge research on vaccines to target three types of brain cancer that afflict both adults and children: medulloblastoma, ependymoma, and glioblastoma.

Vaccines are well known as protective agents against infectious diseases, such as polio, measles, and hepatitis. They work by stimulating immune systems to fight off germs that could lead to these diseases.

Christopher Moertel, M.D.

Now, Moertel and his scientist colleague John Ohlfest, Ph.D., are investigating a different way to use vaccines — to treat, rather than prevent, brain cancer, a non-communicable illness. Despite the different objective, vaccines used to treat brain cancer work on a similar principle as preventive vaccines; the idea is to coax patients’ own immune systems to attack and kill brain tumor cells.

The hope is that this selective targeting will one day be an alternative to chemo- and radiation therapies, which often come with toxic, debilitating side effects.

Ohlfest, director of the neurosurgery department’s Gene Therapy Program and holder of the Hedberg Family/Children’s Cancer Research Fund Endowed Chair in Brain Tumor Research, helped develop a new vaccine that was first used about three years ago to treat dogs with brain cancer. The success of the animal trial paved the way for clinical trials in humans, including an 18-month trial conducted under Moertel’s guidance that was completed this past June.

The recently finished trial involved eight adults who received a vaccine developed by Ohlfest that included dendritic cells extracted from each patient’s blood. When returned to each patient’s body, this “personalized” vaccine made cancer cells more readily recognizable and revved up the immune system to more aggressively attack the cancer cells.

Although their survival rate was not high, patients did respond to the vaccine, Moertel says. “We showed that some patients benefited; we saw their tumors shrink, and we found that promising.”

Setting their sights on a cure

Moertel and Ohlfest have just begun a second clinical trial. It will test a different vaccine preparation along with imiquimod, a cream produced by 3M under the name Aldara, which is spread on the skin and designed to excite certain parts of the immune system to work with the vaccine.

The first part of the second trial will enroll three adults with glioblastoma; the second part will treat 20 children with an incurable childhood cancer called brainstem glioma. “Our hope is that this vaccine will change the outcome for these [patients],” Moertel says.

He and his colleagues have set their sights high: They want to cure brain cancer. Betty Dahlberg’s gift will help them learn more and provide data that could attract additional foundation or government money to reach their lofty goal.

“It’s a great compliment to me and the people I work with to be recognized by the Dahlberg family,” Moertel says.

“Dr. Moertel and his team come highly recommended, so he must be capable of a breakthrough discovery,” concludes Dahlberg, adding a personal compliment: “He is one of the nicest doctors I’ve ever met.”

By Mary Vitcenda

To learn more about supporting pediatric brain cancer research at the University of Minnesota, contact Trudy Schrodt at 612-625-1897 or

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