Local expert explains why glioblastoma is so hard to treat

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Senator John McCain seemed almost indestructible and he did surpass the odds of survival for his type of brain cancer, known as glioblastoma.

If you remember this is the same type of cancer that claimed the life of Beau Biden, Darren Dalton and many others. It's a very aggressive cancer.

I spoke with an expert about why it's so hard to treat and the promise of finding better therapies.

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A video tribute to Sen. John McCain's life from the 2017 Liberty Medal Ceremony in Philadelphia, Pa.

Dr. Stephanie Weiss at Fox Chase Cancer Center says glioblastoma is difficult to treat for two main reasons. One is the cancer cells tend to infiltrate the brain.

"So you can have individual cells just reaching through, it's not something surgically you can get," she said.

And she says unlike some other cancers, treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy don't work as well against glioblastoma.

"The therapies aren't as durable. They can help improve quality of life, they can extend life but rarely is it curative," said Dr. Weiss.

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Glioblastomas are cancerous tumors that arise from the brain's glial cells and are known to grow quickly, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.

The median survival rate is 15 months, but much less for older adults like Senator John McCain. But he surpassed expectations, living 13 months past diagnosis.

"For that patient population he did extraordinarily well," said Dr. Weiss.

And she says there is hope on the horizon. Some clinical trials are promising - many are trying to use a patient's own immune system to attack the cancer.

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John McCain, the six-term Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, has died at the age of 81, more than a year after he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.

And one out Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center is tailoring chemotherapy and radiation based on the genetic make-up of the tumor.

It's giving 40-year-old Lori Mines more time with her family. She's been battling glioblastoma for two years now.

"I am hoping that I'm here longer but it's like I'm realistic too. It's glioblastoma, but I just keep fighting," she said.

Dr. Weiss says she expects in five years for people to survive longer. In ten to fifteen years, to help people manage brain cancer as a chronic illness - not a cure, but being able to live with the tumor not causing too many problems.

Several trials using immunotherapy are in our area.

One study at Lehigh Valley Health Network uses a specially programmed cold virus that acts only in tumors with a defective retinoblastoma gene.

For more information on this local trial, CLICK HERE.

For details on a second clinical trial at Lehigh Valley, CLICK HERE.

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