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Brain Cancer May Not Always Mean Death

The recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy made many people more aware of brain cancer, in particular malignant gliomas, the aggressive form of brain cancer that ended Senator Kennedy's life.

Malignant gliomas are the most common type of brain cancer. Few patients survive more than a year and a half after diagnosis.

At Duke University, Dr. John Sampson says the poor outcome is partly due to the many different types of cells in brain cancers.

"While one cell may be susceptible to chemotherapy and another susceptible to radiation, there may be a third cell that is susceptible to neither of those standard therapies," Dr. Sampson said.

Some doctors hold out hope, if not for a cure, for a longer life.

VOA reported earlier that Dr. Marcus Bredel at Northwestern University has identified certain genes that may help some patients survive longer, and other genes within the tumor that resist treatment and continue growing. "We were able to predict the survival of glioblastoma (brain cancer) patients in a couple of populations across the United States," he said.

Twenty-four-year old P. J. Lukac is one of the researchers. He has glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer. "When I started in the lab it was a very surreal experience because they talk about uniform fatality, they talk about inevitable recurrences of the cancer, and that kind of just hits you," Lukac said. But he is also hopeful. "I think in my lifetime we will see glioblastoma become a chronic and manageable disease," he added.

Surgery is still the preferred option to remove as much of the tumor as possible. But a new treatment involves using fiber-optic laser probes placed inside the brain tumor.

With a burning hot laser, doctors can destroy cancerous tissue they may not be able to reach during conventional surgery.

Doctors Gene Barnett and Steven Jones use fiber optic lasers at the Cleveland Clinic.

"This [the procedure] allows us to steer the laser in different directions, to treat larger areas of tumor and protect normal brain," Dr. Barnett said.

"We can monitor the temperature rise in the tumor second by second while we're scanning the patient. And better than that, we can see where we are killing the tumor," explained Dr. Jones.

"The beauty of the system, is that it allows us to turn off the laser just when the heat wave would reach the point where it would cause harm to normal tissue," Dr. Barnett said.

Vaccines are also in clinical trials. The vaccines could help the body's immune system attack the brain cancer cells.

"There are studies to date with our vaccine. It appears patients are surviving at least twice as long as we expected," Dr. Sampson said.

Ryan DeGrand receives a vaccine once a month for his brain cancer. He has now survived five years. "The vaccine to me ... is a way for me to stay the way that I am today," he said.

Researchers are also experimenting with drugs to choke off the blood supply to brain cancers. Initial studies show they can shrink the tumors by up to 60 percent.

Many doctors say using several treatments in combination soon after diagnosis will probably be the best way to fight brain cancer.