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Tetanus shot offers hope in treating brain cancer, small study shows

| Wednesday, March 11, 2015, 5:48 p.m.

NEW YORK — Can a tetanus shot help treat brain cancer? A small study hints that it might.

A dose of tetanus vaccine let patients live longer when added to an experimental treatment for the most common and deadly kind of brain tumor, researchers report.

It “put the immune system on high alert,” paving the way for the experimental treatment to work better in attacking the disease, said researcher Kristen Batich of the Duke University Medical Center.

In a paper released Wednesday by the journal Nature, she and others describe a study of 12 patients. Some who got the tetanus shot lived years longer than those who didn't.

Dr. John Sampson of Duke, senior author of the report, called the results promising but noted the study was small and said bigger studies are needed to confirm the results.

A follow-up study is planned but isn't recruiting patients yet, Batich said.

Brain cancer experts unconnected with the work were impressed.

The results are “very exciting,” said Dr. Nader Sanai of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. While he agreed more work is required, “what you have so far, it's a very positive story.”

Tetanus is otherwise known as lockjaw. Vaccines for it are routinely recommended for children and adults.

The study focused on glioblastoma, which killed Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 2009. Even after surgery to remove the tumor, it usually grows back and kills.

The few drugs to treat these tumors have little effect. Half of patients die within about 15 months.

The work is an example of a longstanding effort to harness the immune system to fight cancer, an approach called immunotherapy.

The 12 patients in the study were treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. All patients got an ordinary tetanus-diphtheria shot and then three injections of their own cells, spaced two weeks apart.

Then they were randomly divided into two groups. One group got a second, tiny dose of the tetanus-diphtheria vaccine at the place in the skin where the cells would be injected the next day. The other group got a dummy dose.

Cell injections continued monthly until brain scans showed tumors growing.

Of the six patients who got the dummy shot, only one was alive two years after diagnosis, surviving for about 3½ years. Still, overall results for this group indicated a small benefit from the cell injections alone, Batich said.

The results were far better for patients who got the mini-shot of tetanus.

Four surpassed two years. One lived almost five years and another nearly six years.

A seventh is approaching nine years.

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