Glioblastoma, the brain cancer that Sen. John McCain has, is invariably — and accurately — described as aggressive and as having a poor prognosis: Not even Sen. Edward Kennedy or Beau Biden, with access to the best care and most cutting-edge therapies in the world, beat it. Recent advances, however, have persuaded some scientists that effective treatments are on the horizon — and some might even help McCain live longer than earlier patients did. 

“We’ve learned a tremendous amount about the biology of this cancer,” said Dr. David Reardon, director of neuro-oncology at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. That includes understanding “the mutations and other abnormalities that give tumors an advantage, how they adapt and become resistant [to chemotherapy], and how to get treatments across the blood-brain barrier” that is notorious for keeping out drugs.

As a result, he said, “there are an increasing number of drugs that are making their way toward the clinic.”


Market research company Informa Pharma Intelligence counts 87 experimental therapies, from vaccines and gene therapy to monoclonal antibodies (the workhorses of precision medicine), in clinical trials for glioblastoma. Most of those won’t be approved for years, if ever. But the newest tool in oncologists’ kit is one that McCain might benefit from immediately.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an imaging agent that turns glioblastoma pink, making it stand out against healthy brain tissue. Normally, glioblastomas are so difficult to see that surgeons cannot “get it all” without also removing normal gray matter, which can leave patients with severe cognitive, speech, or other impairments.

Glioblastomas “have little tentacles growing into the normal brain that are challenging to see even with a microscope,” said Dr. Costas Hadjipanayis, chairman of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City. When a patient drinks the new agent, called Gleolan, three to five hours before surgery, it “allows us to visualize those fingers of tumor tissue,” he said.

Getting all of a tumor makes a big difference. In a 2016 analysis of 37 studies involving some 41,000 patients, researchers found that when surgeons removed all of a glioblastoma, patients were 38 percent less likely to die within the next year. They were only 16 percent less likely to die by the end of the second year, however, underlining how even “getting it all” is not the same as curing glioblastoma.

“Removing all the visible tumor does not cure this cancer — ever,” said Dr. Mark Gilbert of the National Cancer Institute. Years ago, surgeons removed the entire half of the brain that a glioblastoma was in. Even that “did not markedly increase survival,” he said: Patients still died because malignant cells had already invaded the rest of the brain.

Chemotherapy is of only limited use because glioblastomas shrug off the drugs like Iron Man swats away bullets. These tumors are a crazy quilt of different kinds of cells, said Gilbert. Each kind deploys different molecular tricks — a landmark paper identified four main types — in order to proliferate.

John McCain has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Alex Hogan/STAT

A drug might shrink and contain the tumor for a few months, killing susceptible cells, but the surviving cells are resistant. “You knock out one of the pathways and the others go their merry way,” Gilbert said. “They say, fine, we have free rein,” multiplying and dividing unchecked. That’s why glioblastoma is so aggressive, with a high rate of recurrence and a five-year survival rate of barely 5 percent. Just half of patients are still alive 15 months after their diagnosis.

The exception is if a patient’s glioblastoma is much more uniform than the norm. In that case, it is “addicted” to one specific proliferation pathway that’s vulnerable to a molecularly targeted therapy, Gilbert said. Since McCain will have access to the best care, he will presumably have his tumor genetically profiled (which costs upward of $8,000) to see if it falls into this category. With any luck, he will be in the 2 percent to 3 percent of patients with an extremely uniform glioblastoma that succumbs to a therapy that knocks out its one proliferation pathway.

Otherwise, the only shot at a true cure is to kill the multiple types of cells that make up a glioblastoma, probably sequentially rather than simultaneously. “We recognize that one single approach will not cure glioblastoma,” said Ann Kingston of the National Brain Tumor Society.

But the biological version of whack-a-mole might. That would entail determining the molecular profile of the most abundant cells in the glioblastoma, killing those, then determining the profile of the survivors and going after those. One of the most promising experimental approaches to glioblastoma is therefore to enlist the immune system, which has an unmatched ability to seek out and destroy malignant cells that differ from one another in the way that glioblastoma cells do.

Last December, researchers at City of Hope hospital in Duarte, Calif., reported that they had gotten the much-publicized immunotherapy called CAR-T cells to attack one patient’s glioblastoma. CAR-Ts are immune cells that are removed from a patient and then genetically engineered to attack a particular molecule on tumor cells, and hence the tumors themselves. The 50-year-old patient had suffered a recurrence of glioblastoma after surgery, radiation, and the chemotherapy drug temozolomide. When he received multiple injections of CAR-Ts into his brain, his tumor regressed and was kept at bay for nearly eight months.

That suggested that “a better treatment may be attainable,” Christine Brown, who led the study, said at the time. “We can take a patient who has actively growing, advanced, metastatic multifocal glioblastoma, and we can see regression.”

In an indication of how initial hopes can be dashed, however, the man’s tumors returned in different parts of the brain “even more aggressively than before,” said a City of Hope spokeswoman. “In the end, we were unable to keep up with the rapid spread of his disease.” He died of glioblastoma in April.

That might be a warning sign of a big concern about CAR-Ts — they target a single molecule on tumor cells. Given the heterogeneity of glioblastoma cells, that might be way too few, said Dr. Donald O’Rourke of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Targeting a single molecule, he said, will almost certainly leave tumor cells that have different surface molecules untouched and unleashed.

Last week, O’Rourke and colleagues reported more sobering news about CAR-Ts and glioblastoma. CAR-Ts engineered to target a more common molecule than the City of Hope approach (it’s called EGFRvIII) penetrated glioblastomas in the Penn study’s 10 patients. But the tumors fought back. They created an “immunosuppressive microenvironment,” O’Rourke said, quashing the CAR-Ts.

NCI’s Gilbert, while “very excited” about approaches that target the EGFR molecule, estimated that only 5 percent to 40 percent of a glioblastoma’s cells sport that molecule on their surface.

“Even within the same tumor you have these different molecules,” O’Rourke said. “It’s kind of daunting and is going to be a problem.” He suspects, however, that if CAR-Ts are combined with existing immunotherapies, such as Yervoy and other so-called checkpoint inhibitors, they might be more effective. “But we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Scientists hope that a different kind of immune therapy will hit more targets, and therefore more of the different kinds of cells in a glioblastoma, than CAR-Ts. Called a neoantigen vaccine, it consists of molecules (actually, pieces of them) found on the surface of glioblastoma cells. One patient’s surface molecules are different from other patients’, so neoantigen vaccines are the epitome of personalized therapy. The patient’s immune system recognizes the molecules as invaders and mounts an attack on the corresponding molecules on the tumor. The approach recently showed success in a small study of melanoma patients, and is being tested in glioblastoma patients in a clinical trial at Dana-Farber.

The hope is that a vaccine against one batch of molecules, and then another vaccine against the molecules that appear next, might keep pace with glioblastoma cells’ protean tendencies. But it takes weeks to make these individualized vaccines, time that patients might not have.

Even further along is a vaccine that also targets molecules on a patient’s unique glioblastoma but in a somewhat different way from the Dana-Farber approach. Manufacturer Northwest Biotherapeutics has recruited 331 glioblastoma patients into a late-stage clinical trial, and at this year’s meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology reported that 40 percent of patients treated with “DCVax-L” were still alive at 35 months, compared with 15 percent of patients receiving standard care; 24 percent of patients who got the vaccine were alive after four years, compared with 8 percent otherwise.

It’s a measure of how desperate the search for a glioblastoma cure is that one drug company has gone back to the original “war on cancer” launched by President Nixon 50 years ago to resurrect a compound that wasn’t fully investigated then (because of patent issues that are not longer an obstacle). It’s an old-line chemotherapy drug that damages cells’ DNA. Unfortunately, cells can often repair that damage, eventually making the drug ineffective.

DelMar Pharmaceuticals’s version attacks DNA at a place the repair machinery doesn’t reach, explained CEO Jeffrey Bacha. In a mid-stage clinical trial, patients whose glioblastoma had returned after surgery, radiation, and standard chemotherapy survived a median of 8.3 months, compared with about three months in the comparison group.

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  • Too bad Pelosi blocked that “Right to Try” legislation to allow dying Americans the use of Experimental Drugs.

  • I’m a patient diagnosed with Gioblastoma September 10,2017. I went under surgery and just finished 30 days of radiation and tomodar. I am 60 years old old. I’m doing better than doctors expected. I’m interested in DC Vax for I read great things about it. I would like to know when would it be available or if I qualify for trial. My closest hospital is UCSD Moore cancer. I live in San Diego, California.
    Thank you,
    Army Retired Veteran
    Richard Ramirez

  • I’ve seen some interesting headlines in the last month about the effect the Zika virus is having on brain cancer cells in mice…very early in the research, but bears watching.

  • Hi,

    Where can I get more information about this treatment posted by Bob. I am newly diagonal.

    Thank you very much for your help.



    JULY 28, 2017 AT 1:55 PM
    My guess would be that Chemo was a big part of your friends treatment but if you research some of the new therapy like DCVAX you would find out that it literally has no side effects. Currently in Phase 3 testing it has shown to extent the life of a large number of people in their trail to over 5 years to some over 10 years. I have learned that their are 3 (3 or 4) sub types of this cancer.

  • The title should be revised to 88 experimental therapies. Istari Oncology ( is successfully using PVS-RIPO, the polio virus, as an immunotherapy for glioblastoma. They are enrolling Ph 2, and earlier studies done at Duke have seen some “disease-free” patients result from its use. It’s been featured twice on 60 Minutes.

  • Is there any information from using these new approaches to treat early, slowly returning of grade 2 gliomas?
    Thank you for finding such information

  • My sympathies to Senator McCain and to anyone with this diagnosis. My advice to him is to seek no treatment at all. Enjoy your days, sir. While I applaud these medical research efforts, its a cruel game to play on an 80 year old….My good friend tried an experimental treatment – and the doctors spoke of more! Hope was dangled like a fishing lure. It did extend his life, but in many it was his dying life and not his living life, if that makes sense. Confusion, personality change, collapses, descent. After a few years of that, he died when he was 52. Maybe the doctors learned something. I did, too.

    • I agree with pursuing whatever good days left and avoid treatments that will not make his disease chronic and will probably make him terribly sick. I was told four years ago I had 3 to 6 months and chose treatment after treatment and I am back to the same place 3 to 6 months. I wish I would have trusted my own body and done nothing.

    • My guess would be that Chemo was a big part of your friends treatment but if you research some of the new therapy like DCVAX you would find out that it literally has no side effects. Currently in Phase 3 testing it has shown to extent the life of a large number of people in their trail to over 5 years to some over 10 years. I have learned that their are 3 (3 or 4) sub types of this cancer.
      And DCVAX has shown a very good therapy for 2 of the sub types. Again no side effects…….. I was careful to get everything correct in my response.
      Looks like Sarcoma will be next with a trial for DCVAX, the FDA page is up for the trial.

    • My 13-year old son was diagnosed in April 2013. We read some many hopeful article and spoke to so many optimistic medical professionals that we pursued multiple surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and a trial study. After constant deterioration at each stage, he succumbed to the disease eight months later. In hindsight, it would have been better to forego the life-altering surgeries and enjoy the time remaining. But the toughest thing to do ( and may be impossible) is not to fight when there is a glimmer of hope. Glioblastoma is truly a monster that may be impossible to defeat.

  • Does Senator McCain have some type of chronic infection & inflammation on the left lower side of his face at jaw level, possibly due to an old jaw fracture or dental problem.

    • You are right, Optum’s “Electric Cap” it is not mentioned. The Optum cap is a tumor size reduction type device and not a cure. It is used along other therapies, (possibly to reduce brain pressure caused by a growing tumor) with side effects also.

      Bob’s mentioned DCVAX is proven UP TO Phase III CLINICAL TRIAL to be a non-toxic Cell immuno approach. TIME TO APPROVAL IS THE ONLY HOPE! I wonder if there is a Phase IV clinical trial planned or ready for approval.

  • This article brings up in references an incredibly extensive, specific cancer research, therapeutic applications and progress over the last 20 years.

    Considering the fact that personalized neo-antigen therapeutics has a time constrain from development to application; prevention and hopeful cure calls for causality to be addressed earlier.

    Maybe, DNA / Neo-antigen identification and development for prevention could be initiated upon expected exposure to radiation during treatment of other known factors and depending on expected cancer radiation treatment impact.

    How many traumas are treated as just an injury without proper diagnostics and treatment, relevant potential identification of neurological diseases?
    Could overversighted diagnostics lead to glioblastoma disease, possibly masked under pain and other medications!

    • I Hope this DCVax will be available in Mount Sani hospital in NYC. My Husband is diagnosed with Glioblastoma stage three in May 2017. I Love him and need him .
      He is a fighter Great Daddy to his three daughters, dog and cat. Please help with the cure. Until then we continue to Adorn him. We Love you John Lebron.

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