Clinical study on new cancer treatment for glioblastoma (brain cancer) shows promising early results

The GMRI uses the analogy of a beehive as an explanation for cancer. Photo byMaxime Gilbert/CC0 1.0.

Early results of our clinical trial testing the GMRI’s new cancer treatment for patients with glioblastoma, a devastating brain cancer, were reviewed at a recent independent Data Monitoring Board meeting. The Board concluded that these early results show promise in treating the disease.

The new cancer treatment consists of a combination of commonly used, low-cost oral medications taken by patients at home. If proven successful, the treatment could change how recurrent glioblastoma and other cancers are treated.

The new approach could see patients treated without additional chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery. Not only would this be more manageable for patients but it could also mean a huge reduction in the cost of cancer treatment.

Researchers cautiously optimistic

The GMRI’s Executive Director, Dr Swee Tan, who is leading the study, says that while initial results are encouraging, he and his team are cautious at this point.

The patients currently enrolled in the study have survived between 6 and 14 months since their cancer relapsed following conventional treatment. None of them has experienced any side effects or unexpected complications from the new treatment.

‘We need to be cautious in interpreting these results. Nevertheless, they are encouraging given that the median survival period of glioblastoma patients is about 6 months following relapse,’ says Dr Tan. ‘2% of glioblastoma patients survive beyond 5 years following conventional treatment with surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. International literature shows a median survival of about 15 months from the time of diagnosis.’

Improving quality of life as well as cutting costs

If proven effective, the GMRI’s new cancer treatment could transform cancer patients’ quality of life. It could also greatly reduce the cost of treatment, Dr Tan says.

The cost of cancer treatment in New Zealand is about $1 billion a year. The average cost of treatment for glioblastoma is over $65,000 per year per patient. In comparison, the cost of the medications used in the GMRI treatment under trial is about $4,000 a year.

Results could lead to clinical trials on other cancers

Dr Tan and his research team chose to treat glioblastoma because of its aggressiveness, poor response to conventional treatment, and low survival rate. If they can get funding, the team plans full-scale trials on other aggressive cancers, such as malignant melanoma, metastatic squamous skin cancer, and mouth cancer.  A trial on malignant melanoma is about to commence. We are very grateful to Hugo Charitable Trust for its donation to allow this to get underway.

Targeting the ‘queen bees’ — cancer stem cells

Dr Tan uses the analogy of a beehive to describe cancer. In a beehive, a queen bee produces worker bees and other queen bees. A new queen bee leaves the hive and establishes another hive elsewhere.

‘If you imagine cancer as a beehive, the cancer cells are the ‘worker bees’ and cancer stem cells are the ‘queen bees’,’ says Dr Tan. ‘Cancer stem cells, like queen bees starting new hives, produce new tumours locally and at distant sites.’

The GMRI hypothesis is that, by controlling the cancer stem cells, the cancer cells will stop being produced, preventing recurrence and spread of the cancer.

The medications used in the clinical trial target the renin-angiotensin system, which is thought to be critical in regulating cancer stem cells.

Who’s taking part in the research

The clinical trial team plans to enrol 25 glioblastoma patients in the study. These patients need to have exhausted conventional treatment options or have had further conventional treatment deemed as not beneficial.

To date 6 patients, aged 44 to 66 years, are under treatment. These patients mainly come from the lower North and upper South Island, with one from Christchurch.

Who’s conducting the research

Dr Tan is leading the study, working in partnership with Dr Agadha Wickremesekera, Consultant Neurosurgeon from Capital and Coast District Health Board, and Dr Ramesh Pandey, Consultant Radiation Oncologist from MidCentral District Health Board, as well as other specialists.

Further funding needed to complete trial

The glioblastoma study is expected to cost $3 million over 3 years.  The GMRI is looking for further support to achieve the funding it needs for the duration of the glioblastoma trial.  Funding to support trials on other cancer types is also being sought.

We are very grateful for the donations and contributions received from many supporters so far to enable the glioblastoma study to commence. Among these supporters is Pacific Radiology, who are providing serial PET scans, and Omni Trust.  Another generous supporter is 10-year old Jed Crawford from Arrowtown, whose father Keith died of glioblastoma. Jed has raised nearly $30,000 towards the trial.


Read about Jed Crawford’s fundraising in the Otago Daily Times

Read about Jed Crawford’s fundraising in Mountain Scene

Read about international recognition for cancer research