U of M studies of new brain cancer vaccine moves from dogs to humansIn 2008, veterinarians at the University of Minnesota developed a treatment for brain tumors in dogs that includes surgery and an experimental anti-cancer vaccine. Now, doctors have developed a version of the canine treatment that's being tested in a few humans.
By: Christopher Snowbeck, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
For much of his life, John Huls wasn't really a big fan of dogs.
But the St. Cloud resident has developed a stronger affinity for canines this year through his participation in a research study at the University of Minnesota.
In 2008, veterinarians at the U developed a treatment for brain tumors in dogs that includes surgery and an experimental anti-cancer vaccine. Now, doctors have developed a version of the canine treatment that's being tested in a few humans.
Huls, 63, started receiving his vaccine about two months ago and is feeling great, although he's not sure whether to credit the treatment or the fact that he's no longer undergoing chemotherapy. Either way, Huls says, he is glad to be contributing to research at a time when cancer vaccines are offering new hope to patients.
"I do believe that at some point there will be a vaccine that is effective," Huls said during a news conference Monday at the U's veterinary school.
For veterinarians, the possible migration of a treatment from dogs to humans is an unusual twist. It's much more common for high-tech treatments such as MRIs and insulin pumps to be perfected in humans and then tried in animals, said Elizabeth Pluhar, a U veterinarian.
Pluhar, Huls and a golden retriever named Piper attended the news conference in Falcon Heights to publicize both the human and animal treatments. Piper underwent brain surgery this summer and on Monday visited the U's veterinary hospital for a final treatment
with the vaccine, said her owner, Mary Johnson of Minneapolis.
"We still have 60 slots open for dogs" in a separate study, Pluhar said, noting that dog owners would have to pay about $15,000 for pets to receive treatment outside the context of a research project.
Two years ago, Huls was diagnosed with a brain tumor called a glioblastoma that recurred despite treatment with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. It's "extraordinarily rare" for patients to survive a recurrent glioblastoma, said Dr. Christopher Moertel, clinical director of the brain tumor program at the U's Amplatz Children's Hospital.
The vaccine treatment for humans is being studied in a "phase one" trial, meaning the study is designed to show whether the vaccine is toxic to patients. Depending on the results, researchers might go on to conduct larger studies to determine if the treatment is safe and effective.
Even though the research effort is in the very early stages, it's possible that patients like Huls might experience some benefit from the treatment, Moertel said. For the time being, the St. Cloud resident has a good quality of life, and the remnants of his second tumor, which was surgically removed earlier this year, aren't growing.
"I am a skeptic about this stuff, but scientists are supposed to be skeptics," Moertel said. "Thank goodness for the time that Mr. Huls has with his family."
One of the first cancer vaccines for humans, called Provenge, was approved for use in the United States last year. The prostate cancer treatment has attracted attention both because of its effectiveness for some patients and its large price tag for all -- the one-time treatment costs $93,000.
As with Provenge, patients in the U study undergo a process called leukapheresis, in which their blood is circulated outside the body through a machine that collects white blood cells. The cells then are "trained" through a laboratory process to fight tumors and given back to patients by way of injections, said John Ohlfest, head of the neurosurgery gene therapy program at the U's Masonic Cancer Center.
The brain tumor vaccine being studied at the U is different from other cancer vaccines that are made in part from a patient's own tumor, said Moertel, the brain tumor expert. The patient's tumor is a component of the vaccine being used on dogs at the U. UCLA, meanwhile, is working on one such vaccine for humans in a study that Huls tried to join earlier this year.
When that didn't work out, the St. Cloud resident joined the local study after learning of it from a friend who happens to be a U veterinarian. So far, Huls is the seventh patient to receive the vaccine treatment; researchers hope to enroll two more patients.
As a stockbroker and former Air Force pilot, Huls always has been a risk-taker, said his daughter, Becky Pennings, 30, of St. Paul. So he was excited for the chance to be part of a research study, Pennings said, especially since pediatric patients are among those who could benefit the most.
She's thrilled that her father is feeling so well today and, apparently, has become more appreciative of her family's two black Labs.
"He seems to enjoy them a lot more now," Pennings joked at the news conference.
Noting his lifelong preference for cats, Huls added: "There is more than a little irony....A dog comes along and saves my bacon."
Distributed by MCT Information Services