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Roswell Park immunotherapy appears to keep brain tumor patients alive longer

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
Mike Ciesielski holds a vial of SurVaxM.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers were in Chicago this weekend, reporting on their new work treating a lethal and abrupt brain tumor. It is a new immunotherapy treatment that appears to keep patients alive much longer.

"This is the biggest presentation we've ever made out of our lab, no question about it."

Some cancers are found relatively easily or can be spotted with various diagnostic tests. A glioblastoma is one of the most lethal cancers, the kind of brain tumor which is killing Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"It's a very aggressive tumor that's difficult to really do anything with," said Mike Ciesielski, an assistant professor of neurosurgery. "There have been many failures along the way, so it's a troubling spot of cancer therapy. At the same time, there's tremendous opportunity if we can nudge that window a little further and give a patient some more time."

Patients with a glioblastoma mostly die within a year of diagnosis. Each year, 15,000 people are diagnosed and 10,000 die, not usually diagnosed until some offshoot like seizures triggers medical checks and a stage four tumor is diagnosed.

Roswell Park researchers are using a new drug called SurVaxM as part of standard treatment and in early stage research, patients are living substantially longer. Ciesielski, also president of MimiVax, which was started for drug development, said early research among a small number of patients is showing major progress.

"We have data from the first 12 months on most of these patients," he said. "Usually, if they have standard of care treatment, only 61 percent of patients will be able to survive a year after getting aggressive therapy. Those that have been on the trial receiving the SurVaxM vaccine, 91 percent are alive at 12 months."

Roswell researchers have been joined by people from top cancer centers in studying the work. Ciesielski said the research can be complicated.

"With the drugs such as this, it's almost that every step forward we take, we discover three of four more questions that we honestly never even thought to ask going into it," Ciesielski said. "At the same time, it's providing us more data. It's closing more questions that we had before going into the clinical trial. So it's a work in progress and so far it's going in the right direction."

Ciesielski said the new drug may also work against other cancers.

During the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago, his schedule was full with meetings with other researchers and an array of other people and organizations in the cancer treatment field, including Cleveland Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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