Fighting Brain Cancer With Community Support
John Brennan will tell you that he’s alive now because of a cancer vaccine called SurVaxM.
One late night in June 2016, John had a seizure. It came out of nowhere for the healthy, active retiree. The EMTs who responded to the emergency call thought he’d had a stroke. But an aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma had actually been the trigger.
After surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, John came to Roswell Park. His family had learned about a clinical trial testing a vaccine in combination with chemotherapy in patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma. “Thank God I met all the criteria,” John says.
He’s been receiving SurVaxM along with chemo through the phase II trial since October 2016. He travels to Buffalo from Syracuse regularly and stays with his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He says he’s fatigued from chemo but having no side effects from the SurVaxM — and is getting stronger every month.
SurVaxM at Roswell Park
The SurVaxM vaccine was developed right here in Buffalo by Roswell Park faculty members Robert Fenstermaker, MD, Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery and Director of the Neuro-Oncology Program, and Michael Ciesielski, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Neurosurgery.
SurVaxM targets survivin, a cell-survival protein that’s present in the vast majority of cancers, including glioblastoma. The vaccine is engineered to treat survivin-expressing cancer cells as foreigners, inciting a specific immune response. It has dual mechanisms of action to stimulate a patient’s T-cell immunity and inhibit the survivin pathway to control tumor growth and prevent or delay tumor recurrence. And it does this with fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation.
The SurVaxM stage I clinical trial run by Drs. Fenstermaker and Ciesielski here at Roswell Park had promising outcomes — one of the original patients has survived six years — and other hospitals were eager to participate in the stage II trial for newly diagnosed patients. It is being conducted at the Cleveland Clinic, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in addition to Roswell Park, with favorable results once again.
The team presented its initial findings from the phase II trial at the 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in June.
“These interim phase II trial results in newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients are very promising and offer the potential for longer-term survival in this group where there is great unmet medical need,” says Dr. Fenstermaker. “We believe this drug has the potential to change the glioblastoma treatment paradigm.”
Donations from generous partners and friends have been critical in the vaccine’s development and success, from early seed funding to support for both the phase I and II clinical trials. And the results have great potential well beyond glioblastoma: Evidence so far suggests that SurVaxM could also be effective in melanoma, ovarian and prostate tumors and other survivin-expressing cancers.
The Difference a Clinical Trial Can Make
“If I weren’t on the trial, there’s probably a good chance I would be on the other side of the grass,” John Brennan says. “But I think that it’s really helped me, and hopefully, this SurVaxM will continue to work for many, many years.”
But it’s not just about him. “I entered the trial because I saw it as a way of extending or saving my life, number one. Number two, to help other people. So, I did it for myself and for other people. I appreciate the donors who donate the money for the research, and the brilliant minds at Roswell that can invent these immuno-vaccines.”