The aggressive brain cancer that now afflicts U.S. Sen. John McCain has long been a target of California’s $3 billion stem cell agency.
During its 12-year life span, the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, has spent more than $90 million on research dealing with brain cancer, which claims the lives of 13,000 Americans each year.
Particularly deadly is glioblastoma, the form of cancer McCain has been diagnosed with. Life expectancy after diagnosis generally runs from 12 to 18 months.
Earlier this year, Karen Ring, a stem cell scientist and overseer of CIRM’s social media, wrote on the agency’s blog about a notable, early-stage clinical trial involving glioblastoma. She described the work as “a new cell-based therapy that melted away brain tumors in a patient with an advanced stage” of the disease.
The clinical trial was conducted at the CIRM-financed Alpha Clinic at the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area.
In March, Behnam Badie, who is leading the research, discussed the therapy at a symposium dealing with the Alpha Clinic program. Badie, whose father died of brain cancer, described how the use of T cells helped the patient, Richard Brady, who was also a surgeon.
In a video presented at the symposium, Badie’s colleague, Christine Brown, described T cells as the “soldiers of the immune system.” Brady also appeared in the video, saying, “I find myself in disbelief that I am here.”
On its website, the agency said, “Certain types of stem cells tend to migrate toward the tumor cells wherever they are in the brain. CIRM-funded researchers are trying to genetically engineer those stem cells to produce cancer-killing molecules. Transplanted into the brain, these cells would seek out the cancer cells and deliver their therapy directly where it is needed. This approach could significantly decrease toxic side effects to normal tissues, preserving or improving the patient’s quality of life.”
Brady, however, was not cured by his groundbreaking treatment and ultimately succumbed to the spread of the cancer. Ring wrote, “The effects of the immunotherapy lasted for seven-and-a-half months. Unfortunately, his glioblastoma did come back. … Patients with advanced cases of glioblastoma like Richard often have only weeks left to live, and the prospect of another seven months of life with family and friends is a gift.”
Queried about the implications of the agency’s research in the case of McCain, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for CIRM, said, “Every disease highlights the importance of the search for cures.”