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Experts express hope for fight against brain tumors

ASHLAND — Brain tumors are among the most difficult cancers to treat, and some of the most deadly, but researchers hope one day they can kill such tumors with vaccines.

Researchers and physicians came to Ashland to talk Friday about vaccines for brain tumors and other leading-edge treatments. People traveled from as far as New York, Vermont and Illinois to hear the experts speak at the Ashland Springs Hotel.

Ashland resident John Williams organized the conference to share the latest information on brain tumors with Southern Oregon medical professionals as well as brain-tumor patients and their families.

Brain tumors are among the "orphan" diseases that occur too rarely to attract major research funding. One or two people in every 100,000 develop a brain tumor, Williams said, while breast cancer strikes about one in every eight women.

Williams, 42, said his interest in cancer grew after he lost both parents to different forms of the disease over the space of several years. His mother died of colon cancer; his father from the most common brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM, "the same thing that (Sen. Edward) Kennedy had," Williams said in a break between sessions.

Williams said he was struck by how difficult it was, when his father was diagnosed, to find information about the best treatments for brain tumors, even 15 years after the Internet became a commonly used tool.

A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Williams built a Web site to share information and connect more patients with cutting-edge research.

"I really felt a need to broaden the treatment horizons for patients who might not live in a community right next door someplace like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center (in Seattle)."

Over the years, he developed online relationships with physicians and patients and decided to organize the free conference, which continues today. He obtained support from several foundations, and physicians and other speakers agreed to speak for free.

"They're passionate about their subject matter," Williams said, "and they want patients to know about these treatments as well."

Friday's program opened with a presentation by Dr. John Yu, director of the Brain Tumor Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Yu said vaccines offer one of the most promising approaches for treating a these tumors, which have a median survival rate of 12 months. The vaccines are still in the early phases of development, but they have extended the life of many patients who have used them by many months.

"This might not be a magic bullet," Yu said, "but it may be an effective bullet."

Brain tumors are particularly difficult to treat because they suppress the body's normal immune response. The vaccine attempts to stimulate the immune system, Yu said.

In the clinical trials, patients receive vaccines prepared from their own tumor cells. Surgeons open the patient's skull and remove as much of the tumor as they can, then fast freeze it and ship it to a processing center. Blood is drawn from the patient, and the white cells that specialize in fighting cancer are separated and grown in a laboratory. The white blood cells are exposed to the tumor, then injected under the patient's skin.

Cancer vaccine uses the concept that was developed in 1796, when Edward Jenner first vaccinated people against smallpox in England. Vaccines now protect people from a number of diseases, and provide some protection against seasonal influenza.

Physicians are also combining vaccines with chemotherapy and radiation with encouraging results, Yu said.

The researchers' expertise made the conference exceptional, said Cheryl Broyles of Klamath Falls, who has had four brain surgeries since she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2000. She was scheduled to speak today on living with a brain tumor.

"I've been to lots of brain tumor conferences since I was diagnosed nine years ago," Broyles said. "This is not 'brain tumor 101.' This is the best of them."

For more on the conference and brain tumors, see the Web site at: www.treatingglioblastoma.com

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.