A vaccine for brain cancer? Swedish researchers are working to make it happen

May 10, 2021 Swedish Cancer Team

Key takeaways:

  • Swedish researchers are working with colleagues who are developing a vaccine for patients with glioblastoma.

  • The glioblastoma vaccine uses immune cells that can attack cytomegalovirus (CMV), the virus found in many cases of glioblastoma.

  • Swedish is also working on a separate vaccine that targets exact strains of CMV, which can spur glioblastoma tumor growth.

[4 MIN READ]

Brain cancer can be a scary and complex disease, but a diagnosis may not be as grim as it once was.

Recent research, including work done here at Swedish, has moved the needle on brain tumor treatment, opening doors to new possibilities and improving lives for patients worldwide.

With May marking Brain Cancer Awareness Month, we’re excited to share some of the latest news from The Ben & Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment, including a potential vaccine for patients with a lethal form of brain cancer, glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma vaccine is on its way

It’s vaccine season at Swedish. While our caregivers are busy inoculating the public against COVID-19, our team at The Ivy Center is preparing to study an experimental vaccine for patients with glioblastoma. This vital research continued despite the pandemic thanks to the philanthropic support of our community and through fundraising events such as the Seattle Brain Cancer Walk

We caught up with Charles Cobbs, M.D., the Gregory Foltz, M.D., Endowed Director of The Ivy Center, to find out more about how current brain cancer research at Swedish could upend the way we treat this aggressive form of cancer. Hear what Dr. Cobbs had to say.

What can you tell us about this new vaccine?

Dr. Cobbs: We are working with a researcher at another organization who has developed a panel of T-cells, or immune cells that can be made into a vaccine. The T-cells attack CMV, the virus found in many cases of glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain cancer. His preliminary evidence suggests that the vaccine can help patients fight their cancer. That’s why we’d like to bring the next phase of the trial to Swedish within the next year or two.    

Since vaccines are on our minds right now, can you explain how this vaccine for glioblastoma might work as compared to COVID-19 vaccines?

Dr. Cobbs: The current Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA to teach your immune system, including T-cells, to go after the coronavirus. The problem is that patients with glioblastoma often have inherently poor immune function as a result of their tumor compared to healthy people. So, their own T-cells are not able to work against CMV, even with good instructions. 

This new vaccine for glioblastoma contains T-cells from donors that are distilled into a series of injections. When a patient comes along with a glioblastoma, we can match the T-cells in the vaccine to their immune system. 

How is the glioblastoma vaccine made?

Dr. Cobbs: Most people who get CMV recover fully, and their immune system is primed to fight another infection. It’s only a small percentage who go on to develop brain cancer, but healthy donors can provide a trained team of T-cells in a process similar to donating blood. 

In a petri dish, the donor T-cells are mixed with additional CMV proteins as well as cytokines, which are drugs that make the T-cells react and get better at fighting the virus. The resulting T-cells are supercharged and able to work in place of the patient’s non-functioning immune system to attack infected tumor cells.

How have patients responded to similar glioblastoma vaccine trials at other institutions?

Dr. Cobbs: We have some preliminary evidence that patients with recurrent glioblastoma live longer with the vaccine. And it seems to be that their survival is related to the amount of T-cells and how well they are functioning. Further trials at Swedish will help us better understand how to make the best possible vaccine, while offering patients a treatment that could extend their life. 

Could a vaccine be a cure for glioblastoma?

Dr. Cobbs: I’ve seen patients with glioblastoma who had a huge immune response against CMV which resulted in their tumor literally disappearing. It’s a rare thing, but I think that it’s got the potential to help other patients. The problem is that these tumors suppress the immune system so that the patient’s own T-cells don’t function. That’s why we think a vaccine that replenishes the supply of healthy T-cells can help patients fight their cancer. 

Has this changed your plan to develop your own vaccine for glioblastoma?

Dr. Cobbs: No, we are going to continue our research to develop a vaccine tailored to work against the exact strain or strains of CMV that accelerate glioblastoma growth. But since there is clinical evidence from other centers like Duke University that the T-cell vaccine works, I think we’re going to continue developing our vaccine in parallel with trials of the existing vaccine. That way, patients will have access to these kinds of treatments sooner, while we work on fine-tuning our own vaccine. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected research at The Ivy Center?

Dr. Cobbs: Last spring, our research had to slow down to comply with public health regulations. It was frustrating, but our researchers found ways to keep working on projects from home. Within a few months, we were all back in the lab with safety precautions in place. 

COVID is a horrific, worldwide problem that has unfortunately affected all kinds of research. I hope that one year from now we will have vaccinated a majority of the United States and the world’s population and put the pandemic behind us. But brain cancer will still be affecting families in our community and around the world. It’s a disease that seems to hit young, healthy people in the prime of their lives. So it’s something we still need to go after full force. And with the community’s support, my colleagues and I can keep doing just that. 

Support brain cancer research at Swedish

While we’re excited about these groundbreaking treatment possibilities, the researchers at Swedish recognize that there’s plenty of work still to be done. With support from our community, we know we can make a difference in the lives of current and future brain cancer patients.

To learn more about how you can support innovative brain cancer research at Swedish, contact Swedish Medical Center Foundation at 206-386-2738, foundation@swedish.org, or visit www.swedishfoundation.org/Ivy.

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Find a doctor

If you or a loved one need specialized treatment for benign, malignant brain and spinal cord tumors, you can learn more at www.swedish.org/ivycenter. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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