Dr. Greg Foltz wasn’t always interested in being a brain surgeon. He was first a classically trained pianist at The Julliard School in New York. But while he was in college, a friend of Foltz’s died from brain cancer. Since then, the doctor has devoted his life to treating one of the most deadly forms of cancer.
The life expectancy of a person diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common form brain cancer, is only about 15 months, just a few months better than it was a century ago.
“We felt we needed to focus our efforts on coming up with better treatment options,” said Foltz.
In an effort to extend the life expectancy of brain cancer patients by as much as 5 years, Foltz is leading cutting-edge clinical trials at the Ben & Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at Swedish. To fund this life saving research, he has helped to organize Seattle’s only Brain Cancer Walkon September 22.
Foltz explains that one of the greatest challenges in treating brain cancer is that, while he can effectively remove tumors in 85 percent of cases, individual cancer cells left behind can be difficult to find and destroy.
In some cases, chemotherapy and radiation can kill these cells and keep new tumors from growing, but these treatments are incredibly harmful to the patient. Chemo causes hair loss, nausea, heart damage and can be too toxic for a patient to handle. Radiation can effect healthy portions of the brain and lead to secondary cancers.
Foltz is working on two clinical trials that could prevent the harmful side effects that come with chemo and radiation: the DCVax Brain Cancer Vaccine Trial and the Toca 511 Trial.
The Brain Cancer Vaccine Trial uses immunotherapy to improve the body’s ability to find and destroy cancer cells. The treatment is based on a theory that our bodies regularly create cancer cells but that tumors only grow when our immune system fails to destroy these cells. Immunotherapy effectively trains a patient’s immune system to destroy the cancer.
In this trial Foltz removes the patient’s tumor, preserving a sample of the cancer cells. Then, he removes some of the patient’s white blood cells and trains them to recognize specific characteristics of the cancer cells.
“It’s a lot like taking an attack dog and giving it clothing to recognize the scent of what it’s looking for,” Foltz said.
The white blood cells are then stimulated and injected back into the patient’s body to search for any remaining cancer cells and destroy them. In cases where immunotherapy is successful patients avoid chemotherapy and radiation. The only side effect Foltz has seen in his trial is a little redness around the injection site, similar to that of the flu vaccine.
“This is a more positive, healthier approach,” Foltz said. “We’re strengthening the patient’s own resistance to tumors. We’re utilizing a new approach, not just adding a different toxic treatment.”
This clinical trial is in stage 3. The next step is approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has already approved immunotherapy treatment of prostate cancer.
The Ivy center is also one of just eight institutions across the country participating in the Toca 511 trial.
Toca 511 is a virus engineered by Tocagen specifically to seek out tumor cells. After removing a brain tumor, Foltz injects this virus all around the brain. Healthy tissue is not affected as the virus only infects cancer cells, releasing an enzyme into them. Once the virus has had time to spread, the patient is given a second drug that converts that enzyme into a very potent chemotherapy that kills the cancer cells. Because healthy cells are not affected, this treatment also has none of the typical chemo side effects such as nausea or hair loss.
In just 2 years, Foltz hopes to be able to offer Toca 511 to all of his patients.
Neither of these clinical trials would be possible if not for research funding from sources like the Brain Cancer Walk.
Brain cancer survivor Kami Combes, 37, has participated in the walk since it first started 5 years ago.
“The changes I’ve seen in the past 5 years have been amazing,” Combes said.
While she has been cancer free for 5 years now, Combes says seeing the research being done at Ivy Center is comforting, just in case her cancer ever comes back.
“Should anything else happen I’m going to be a little less worried,” Combes said. “If this were to come back there might be different options.”
The walk has also allowed Combes to connect with other survivors.
“We have met people whose first diagnosis was pretty grim, but they’re still here because of the great work being done at the Ivy Center,” Combes said.
The 5th Annual Seattle Brain Cancer Walk will take place on Saturday, September 22 at Seattle Center’s Founders Court. Registration can be done online until September 17, 5 p.m., and in person on event day. All walk proceeds go directly to patient care and research and every dollar raised is matched by $9 in grant funding.