Woman with brain cancer who was given just two months to live has survived for NINE years and seen five grandchildren born after being given experimental vaccine
- Sandra Hillburn, 68, was diagnosed with terminal glioblastoma in April 2006
- She was offered to be in a experimental 12-patient study at Duke University
- Researchers gave a tetanus shot
- The patients were treated with a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and tetanus-diphtheria shot
- Study found that patients who got the tetanus shot lived years longer than those who didn’t
Nine years – and five grandchildren – later, the 68-year-old retiree from New Jersey is still going strong, and all thanks to an experimental treatment involving a common vaccine.
Hillburn, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, was one of 12 cancer patients who were given a tetanus shot as part of a new study conducted at the Duke University Medical Center.
Researchers found that a dose of tetanus vaccine let patients like Hillburn live longer when added to an experimental treatment for the most common and deadly kind of brain tumor,
Beating the odds: In April 2006, when Sandy Hillburn was diagnosed with glioblastoma – the most common and deadly kind of brain tumor – she was given only two-three months to live
Matriarch: Thanks to an experimental treatment involving the tetanus-diphtheria vaccine, Hillburn (top center) got to witness the birth of five more grandchildren
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 has already been planned but isn’t recruiting patients yet, Batich said.
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 new study focused on glioblastoma, which killed Massachusetts Sen. Edward 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.
When diagnosed in New York in April 2006, ‘I was told I had two to three months to live,’ Sandra Hillburn recalled in a telephone interview.
But her family flew her to Duke in North Carolina because of its reputation for glioblastoma care, and she was offered a slot in the experimental study.
Cutting age treatment: Hillburn was one of 12 cancer patients who were given a tetanus shot as part of a new study conducted at the Duke University Medical Center
New approach: Doctors remove white blood cells from a patient and equip them with a chemical target found in the tumor. Then they return the cells to the patient’s body, where they train the immune system to go after the cancer cells and kill them.
‘I was very positive it would help,’ Hillburn said. ‘I said, “Sure, thank you.” I’m still saying thank you.’
In the years since then, she has attended her son’s wedding and gained five more grandchildren. Now she plays soccer with six grandsons in Ohio and Boston.
‘I look forward to seeing the wonderful people they’re becoming,’ she said.
She continues to visit Duke once a month for more cell injections. Last November, she celebrated her 100th treatment. Dr Sampson said it’s not clear why she has lived so long.
Hillburn credits the treatment and her medical care at Duke. She also cited the example of her father, who is a 97-year-old survivor of two kinds of cancer.
‘He just went about his life, and so I did the same thing,’ Hillburn said.
At age 68, Hillburn, plans to continue beating the odds for years to come.
‘I think I’m good for at least another 10 years,’ she told CBS News.
Living by example: Hillburn said her father is a 97-year-old survivor of two different types of cancer who continues to go about living his life, and she is doing the same
Looking ahead: She continues to visit Duke once a month for more cell injections and hopes to celebrate her 80th birthday
Positive outlook: Hillburn said when she was offered to be in the study, she was sure the experimental treatment would help
The active senior says she is lucky because she can enjoy a normal life: play golf, take long walks every day and meet friends for lunch.
The new research work that has so dramatically prolonged Sandy Hillburn’s life is an example of a long-standing effort to harness the immune system to fight cancer, an approach called immunotherapy.
The specific strategy it used is called a dendritic-cell vaccine. Doctors remove white blood cells from a patient and equip them with a chemical target found in the tumor called cytomegalovirus, or CMV. Then they return the cells to the patient’s body, where they train the immune system to go after the cancer cells and kill them.
Not sitting still: The active senior says she is lucky because she can enjoy a normal life
The 12 patients in the new study were treated with a combination of 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.
The idea behind the tetanus mini-shot was that the immune system “gets revved up in this particular area” so that “the body will be more excited about what’s to come,” Sampson said.
Cell injections continued monthly until brain scans showed tumor growing.
For the six patients who got the dummy shot, only one was still 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 of them lived almost five years and another nearly six years.
The study was funded in part by a government grant to a business venture that is licensing the technology. Some of the authors have filed patents related to the tetanus strategy.