|Human brains stored at the Illinois Anatomical Gift Association|
I like writing medical stories, or used to. Then the pace of the paper got more frantic and I stopped taking the time. While I've done a number with the University of Chicago Hospitals, Illinois Masonic, Michael Reese, Christ Hospital, and especially Loyola, Northwestern Memorial was in a realm of unapproachability all its own. For reasons I never quite fathomed, they just didn't want to be in the newspaper. So whenever I would meet someone from Northwestern, a trustee, a board member, who would airily inform me they were with the hospital, I would shock them by saying, "Northwestern Memorial? I HATE Northwestern Memorial...." I don't know if that had an effect, though I did it twice in the past year with two highly placed NU bigwigs, or they just brought on a new PR team, but they actually pitched this research at me, and it sounded new and significant enough to write something about. I had wanted to spend time delving deeply into this process, but got sidetracked, and this more superficial look had to do.
‘Here’s the thing with brain cancer,” said Dr. Andrew Parsa, chairman of neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, “it’s relatively rare — 30,000 to 40,000 people get it every year. Yet it’s a very significant health care cost, per patient, because of all the chemo, all the treatments, the MRI scans.”
An expensive, deadly illness, one that kills patients quickly, usually within a year to 16 months after it’s detected.
“We have made no progress in this disease in the 20 years I have been in neurology,” Parsa said. “We haven’t moved things forward in terms of therapies. We have made some minor advances, but haven’t found any home run drugs or approaches.”
Not yet. But that might change soon.
Parsa is conducting a major study for the National Cancer Institute, treating brain tumors not just with the traditional surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but with a vaccine formed from material taken from the cancerous tumors themselves, which range from the size of a cherry to a grapefruit. The vaccine is designed to keep cancer from recurring and shift it from a terminal to a treatable chronic condition, like diabetes.
“When we talk about vaccines, we think mumps, measles, rubella,” Parsa said. “With this type of vaccine, what we can do is disrupt the tumor from coming back, in a specific, nontoxic way. We [cut out] the tumor, ship it to a laboratory, they make a vaccine that is tumor-specific, patient-specific.”
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