Senator Kennedy Diagnosed with Brain Cancer

Edward KennedySenator Edward M. Kennedy, 76, the longtime Massachusetts Democrat has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Preliminary results from the biopsy revealed a malignant glioma.  The most common type of malignant glioma is called glioblastoma multiforme or “GBM.”

As reported in the New York Times published on May 21, 2008, Kennedy’s doctors have stated that “the usual course of treatment includes combinations of various forms of radiation and chemotherapy” and that “decisions regarding the best course of treatment for Senator Kennedy will be determined after further testing and analysis.”

According to published medical information, survival for patients with GBM is typically about 12 months.  Our prayers go out to Mr. Kennedy and his family.  Perhaps this unfortunate diagnosis may initiate a more global discussion on the continued lack of progress in treating malignant brain cancers.

No Progress in 30 Years

Despite the occasional pronouncements of “breakthroughs” the improvement in survival for GBM is practically zero over the last 30 years.  According to The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States, the two year Relative Survival Rate for GBM from 1973-1994 was 8.8%.  It was 8.7% for the period 1973-2002.  The five year Relative Survival Rate for GBM from 1973-1994 was 3.4%.  It was 3.3% for the period 1973-2002.  And the ten year rate for GBM from 1973-1994 and 1973-2002 was 2.3%.  After nearly 30 years there has been essentially no improvement in survival despite the millions of dollars spent on research and treatment.

Targeted Therapies – “Disappointing”

In the last several years there has been research in the area of targeted therapies like vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).  VEGF is an important signaling protein involved in the growth of blood vessels.  A theory called “anti-angiogenesis” is based on the concept that it may be possible to starve a tumor by stopping the growth of new blood vessels that feed the cancer.  While the theory is promising, in clinical practice with malignant gliomas the results to date have been disappointing.  According to a report published in March of this year in the journal Expert Opinion on Emerging Drugs, “Experience with targeted therapeutics for malignant glioma has been to date disappointing. These agents are generally well tolerated, but activity is limited.”

Unconventional Thinking – Poly MVA and Antineoplastons

Has there been any progress whatsoever in treating GBM and other malignant gliomas?  There has been some intriguing results, but they have not come from leading medical centers or drug companies.

Poly MVA

Poly MVA was invented by Dr. Merrill Garnett, a biochemist.  It is a dietary supplement based on the nontoxic chemotherapeutic lipoic acid-palladium complex (LAPd).  LAPd is a liquid crystal that works in cancer cells by transferring excess electrons from membrane fatty acids to DNA via the mitochondria.  It has been used as a dietary supplement by thousands of cancer patients.  According to anecdotal reports published on websites some patients who have survived glioblastoma and other malignant brain tumors believe their use of this dietary supplement may have been partly responsible.  Are mainstream oncologists intrigued by these results?  No.  Nearly all conventional oncologists reject this dietary supplement as a potential therapeutic modality.

Dr. Burzynski’s Antineplastons

According to a National Cancer Institute Factsheet:

“Antineoplastons are a group of synthetic compounds that were originally isolated from human blood and urine by Stanislaw Burzynski, M.D., Ph.D., in Houston, Texas. Dr. Burzynski has used antineoplastons to treat patients with a variety of cancers. In 1991, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) conducted a review to evaluate the clinical responses in a group of patients treated with antineoplastons at the Burzynski Research Institute in Houston.  The medical records of seven brain tumor patients who were thought to have benefited from treatment with antineoplastons were reviewed by NCI. This did not constitute a clinical trial but, rather, was a retrospective review of medical records, called a “best case series.” The reviewers of this series found evidence of antitumor activity, and NCI proposed that formal clinical trials be conducted to further evaluate the response rate and toxicity of antineoplastons in adults with advanced brain tumors.” 

These clinical trials never occurred.  Nonetheless, the Burzynski Research Institute is conducting FDA approved clinical trials using antineoplastons for a variety of cancers.  Results in brain tumor continue to be encouraging. In a March 2006 study published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies, four patients with glioblastoma were treated with antineoplastons.  One of the four patients had survived (at the time of publication) more than 5 years.  The results of only four patients may not be statistically valid, but if they are validated with further results it would suggest a 5-year survival of 25% compared to 3.3% with conventional therapies. 

Are mainstream oncologists intrigued by the potential therapeutic value of antineoplastons?  No.  Nearly all oncologists reject this modality.

Conventional Oncologists Reject Unorthodox Approaches

Why do oncologists reject any potential therapy, like lipoic acid-palladium complex and Burzynski’s antineoplastons, that was not created by a major medical center or a pharmaceutical company?  There are many reasons possibly including:

1) These approaches represent fundamental shifts in thinking about how to treat brain cancer.  To understand how Poly MVA or antineoplastons may work in the human body requires a different understanding of the biochemistry of cancer and the role of our immune systems.
2) The experience and skills of mainstream oncologists are dictated to a large degree by what they leaned in medical school and the studies they have been involved in subsequent to their graduation.  These studies are often financed or partly financed by drug companies who focus on therapies that are easily patentable.  Chemotherapy fits this model. 

3) There may be an emotional investment.  In the case of malignant gliomas many oncologists have seen hundreds of their patients pass away.  To admit that they, the doctor, have been on the wrong path all along, maybe too tough to bear.

Whatever the reasons, the result has been no dramatic improvement in survival with GBM over decades.  Because patients who are the ultimate consumer of these therapies generally put their lives in their doctor’s hands, there is no “market demand” for thinking outside the box.  Because drug companies finance the lion’s share of research in this area, corporations continue to decide what is developed and what is not based on their own financial incentives.  Because doctors get paid regardless of whether their patients live or die there is no burning incentive for physicians to break from the status quo.  What all this means, unfortunately, is that the lack of progress will most likely continue.

But, there is hope for Mr. Kennedy and other patients diagnosed with malignant gliomas.  If you are willing to be your own best advocate and expand your universe of possible treatment modalities outside of chemo, radiation, and surgery, you may be able to blaze your own path to health as others have done.

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