A vaccine with the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment is being tested in Boston. The customized vaccines are intended to help the body’s immune system target an individual’s tumor.
Heather Walker, a wife, mother and Boston Celtics executive, is participating in the clinical trial. In July, doctors discovered a fast-growing tumor in her brain, called glioblastoma. Advertisement
The rare and aggressive form of cancer is diagnosed in about 13,000 adults in the U.S. each year. More than 93% of patients die within 5 years and the average survival is about 15 months.
“Historically, when a glioblastoma was diagnosed, patients were often referred to a palliative care, a kind of hospice situation because treatment was not able to be effective,” said Dr. David Reardon, clinical director of the Center for Neuro-Oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Walker has already undergone surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
During Walker’s recent interview with sister station WCVB, she got exciting news about her next step: The first dose of her customized vaccine had arrived.
“Oh, I’m just so fortunate,” she said after reading the message. “That’s what’s going to save my life.”
Reardon and his team of researchers from MIT are using the DNA of tumors to look for gene mutations and abnormal proteins that can be used to craft vaccines that teach the patient’s immune system to attack cancerous cells.
“It’s somewhat analogous to the flu or the COVID vaccines, where people are getting the vaccines to sensitize their immune system against the flu virus or the COVID virus,” he said. “But here we’re designing a vaccine that’s unique to that patient’s tumor.”
The formula designed for Walker may work for her, but wouldn’t work for anyone else.
The custom vaccine process is expensive and labor-intensive, taking up to three months to complete.
Reardon thinks Walker is a good candidate for the treatment. She’s relatively young and surgery was successful in removing most of the mass in her brain.
Walker is expecting to receive her first dose next week.