Researchers search for brain tumor treatments
August 5, 1999
Web posted at: 10:36 a.m. EDT (1436 GMT)
From Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland
(CNN) -- What caused 19 employees at a BP Amoco plant outside Chicago to develop brain tumors has been a medical mystery. The company has been investigating the cause for two years in hopes of finding out why.
Thirteen of the tumors were benign, but six were cancers for which there is no known cause or cure. In 1997 almost 20,000 Americans were diagnosed with brain cancer. Although still considered rare, the number of people diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors has increased by close to 50 percent in the past decade.
Researchers cannot account for the increase and do not know what causes these tumors.
"What we do know from epidemiological studies is there are certain occupational groups that appear to have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor," said Dr. Mark Gilbert of Emory University Medical Center in Atlanta.
Workers in the electrical, nuclear and petroleum industries appear to have a higher risk of developing brain tumors.
How to treat these tumors still has scientists baffled. Doctors who treat brain tumors do not talk about cure; they talk about putting patients into remission or giving them more time. Across the country, several treatments are being explored to reach those goals.
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic are experimenting with a brain tumor vaccine.
"Basically, this is a technique where we train the patient's immune system to reject their own brain tumor," said Dr. Gene Barnett.
In the laboratory, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are using scorpion venom to reach these tumors.
"We use the scorpion venom as the guide and attach traditional chemotherapeutic reagents to it and guide those specifically to the cancer cells," said UAB's Harold Sontheimer.
Dan Kohn, 31, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most deadly type of brain cancer, in 1997.
"I was starting to experience more numbness in the side of my face," Kohn said. "It wasn't bad, it was kind of tingling. And then some of my vision started to blur."
Expected survival for patients like Kohn is less than a year. A newlywed when he was diagnosed, Kohn hoped to beat those odds with an experimental treatment.
He underwent chemotherapy three days straight. The idea was to get more drugs through the blood-brain barrier to the tumor.
Thus far, his doctors say he's had an excellent response to his treatment . He has survived twice as long as typically expected.
Now, after close to two years of marriage, the Kohns are finally taking a honeymoon.
"I think we are getting smarter about how to approach the issue of chemotherapy," Gilbert said. "And I think that on the horizon we have tremendous treatments that are really starting to look at how the tumor behaves and how we can outsmart it."
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Emory University School of Medicine
University of Alabama at Birmingham
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Cancer Treatment Research Foundation
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
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