Approximately 15,000 Americans will be diagnosed with glioblastoma this year. Although considered a rare cancer, doctors are seeing an increase in cases of the aggressive and deadly brain cancer that’s notoriously hard to treat.
A local organization that’s helping enroll brain cancer patients in clinical trials around the world gives signs of hope.
"This is a really devastating disease," said Dr. Web Cavenee. "For the patient, for their friends, for their family."
Glioblastoma is what killed senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy, President Biden’s son Beau and News4 anchor Wendy Rieger.
"It's lethal because of several things. One, it grows very rapidly. Second, it is resistant to almost any type of therapy — radiotherapy or chemotherapy. And third, it moves through the brain," Cavenee said.
Cavenee is one of the pioneers in cancer research and said treatment typically begins with surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. That was Rieger's progress.
But the tumor almost always grows back and carries a grim prognosis.
"Many, if not most, will succumb in the first year or two, Cavenee said.
Glioblastoma is still relatively rare, with 15,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., accounting for 1% of all invasive cancers. Doctors say it’s becoming more common but the reason why isn't entirely clear.
"We don't really know the environmental underpinnings of the disease," Cavenee said. "Often this disease appears because somebody fell over or had a headache and then had a massive tumor. So we don't know what preceded that."
The increase in cases, the doctor said, may stem from improved screening tools such as MRIs and CAT scans, which have become more widely available over the years.
But there is some hope, thanks to organizations like the National Foundation for Cancer Research, which is based in Rockville, Maryland.
"GBM is one of the most deadly diseases and patients cannot wait. We have people dying, yet the traditional clinical trial system takes too long," president and CEO Dr. Sujuan Ba said.
That’s why the organization is taking part in a new international initiative called GBM Agile. Unlike traditional trials, the program is changing the way rare cancers and diseases are treated, making it easier for brain cancer patients to access experimental drugs and therapies.
"That can put the patients into trials faster, and they can have access to multiple drugs," Ba said.
This global initiative allows participants to receive multiple treatments simultaneously and limits the number of patients that are given a placebo in clinical trials, giving people more options as they face a formidable enemy.
"This whole process is hundreds of researchers and physicians who want to provide hope to these patients and make this terrible situation maybe a little bit better for people," Cavenee said. "And hopefully, we can find something which will solve this problem."
Getting into a clinical trial can be challenging, especially for patients with a terminal illness. That’s why this program holds so much promise.
The GBM Agile program started several years ago. Right now, it's only geared to those with brain tumors, but the hope is it could one day lead to treatments and research opportunities for people with other cancers and diseases.
For more information on how to get involved in clinical trials through the National Foundation for Cancer Research, visit the organization's website here.
To explore brain tumor statistics collected by the American Cancer Society, visit the journal here.