$50M Barrow brain-tumor center will seek cures for ‘the most complex’ cancer

With $50 million from a private foundation, Phoenix-based Barrow Neurological Institute  announced Monday that it is opening a center to focus on improving brain-cancer outcomes through experimental clinical trials.

The private, Scottsdale-based Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation is financing the new Ivy Brain Tumor Center, which will aim to improve the odds of surviving brain cancers.

In particular, the center will target glioblastoma, said neurological oncologist Dr. Nader Sanai, who will direct the new center. He called the disease “the most complex biological cancer.”

The Ivy Center will be about “high risk, high reward” treatment therapies for the deadly cancer, Sanai said. Ideally, he would like to see glioblastoma become a chronic disease that does not impact life expectancy.

What is glioblastoma, the cancer that killed McCain?

“If you can find a way through glioblastoma, all of the others are comparatively less complex,” Sanai said. “The challenge of glioblastoma is that it has so many mutations. It is so dynamic, meaning it changes day by day. It’s almost impossible to anticipate and has incredible resistance to drugs.”

Every brain-tumor patient at the new Barrow center, regardless of their diagnosis or state of their brain tumor, will have an individualized option for an experimental therapy, Barrow officials said. Over the next 10 years, Barrow officials hope to complete 30 to 35 clinical trials with up to 750 patients at the Ivy Brain Tumor Center.

Barrow’s announcement of the new brain-tumor center follows closely the death of U.S. Sen. John McCain, whose diagnosis with glioblastoma raised awareness of the disease.

But the timing is a coincidence. Barrow officials began pursuing funding for a brain-tumor center long before McCain’s diagnosis, Sanai said.

“It took several years to iron out the details,” Sanai said. “This is a ground-up effort, including facilities, personnel recruitment, and research programs. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

The ultimate goal of the center, which will be built on the Barrow campus, will be to cure brain cancer, Catherine Ivy, president of the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

Glioblastoma aggressive, difficult to treat, experts say

Ivy’s husband, Ben, died of glioblastoma in 2005, and the foundation has invested millions into researching gliomas, malignant tumors that occur in the brain and spinal cord.

“After years of assessment, we have decided to invest in the Ivy Brain Tumor Center at Barrow,” Ivy said. “The more we discover, the more we can do to help patients and their families.”

Only 12 percent of glioblastoma patients are alive two years after their diagnosis.

Avondale resident Leslie Casillas, 40, is counting on Barrow’s new brain-tumor center to help manage her glioblastoma.

Casillas was diagnosed with glioblastoma after she went to her primary-care doctor in December 2017 because she was having unusual headaches. She had surgery to remove the malignant tumor, but it grew back.

Human trials of experimental, cancer-killing drug could change everything

Casillas, an elementary-school teacher and mother of two, is enrolled in one of six clinical trials Barrow currently has open for brain-cancer patients. She is participating in what’s known as a Phase Zero trial.

Phase Zero trials seek to reduce the failure rate for clinical trials by asking two questions prior to starting a patient on a particular drug regimen: First, whether the drug is reaching the patient’s tumor; and second, whether it’s working on the tumor on a molecular level.

“Many of the drugs we use for brain-tumor patients don’t get into the brain. The brain is designed to keep things out, so it’s very difficult to design drugs that get through the blood-brain barrier,” Sanai said.

Also, animal models are notoriously unreliable for drugs used to treat the brain because an animal brain is very different from a human brain, Sanai said.

“If the drug is not getting into the brain in the first place, there’s no point in even giving it,” he said.

On Monday, Casillas will begin a regimen of a lung-cancer drug developed called LDK378. In 10 days, she will have surgery to remove her tumor. Barrow entered a partnership with Novartis to test the drug for brain cancer.

“While the patient is recovering from surgery, we already know whether this experimental drug can work for them and should work for them, or if it shouldn’t even be tried for them,” Sanai said. “They basically find this out before they lose any time at all.”

Sanai stressed that Barrow did not randomly choose LDK378 for Casillas. Rather, tissue from her first surgery went through advanced genomic and genetic analysis.

“That’s when we started to see the signaling pathways active in her initial tumor,” Sanai said. “This is as close as you can get to personalized medicine.”

John McCain’s brain-cancer diagnosis

Within about a week after Casillas has her next surgery, Sanai will know whether the LDK378 is working for her. If it’s not, then Casillas will avoid going on a drug that could give her side effects yet have no effect on her cancer.

“If the answer is no, that is just as valuable as anything else,” Sanai said. “She’s better off knowing that now.”

Major gains in survival rates for melanoma and breast cancer occurred by better understanding genetics and being more aggressive about drug development. When survival rates improved for those diseases, it happened fast and Sanai is hopeful that will happen with glioblastoma, too.

Barrow has a network of medical and research partner institutions, including Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), which also recently announced plans to step up its glioiblastoma research efforts. Sanai confirmed that TGen will be part of the Ivy Brain Center’s work.

McCains creating brain-cancer research position

A newly created John S. McCain III Endowed Chair in Brain Cancer Research at TGen has been receiving donations from around the world since McCain’s Aug. 25 death, said Erin Massey, chief development officer for the TGen Foundation. 

The McCain family provided the impetus for TGen’s endowed chair position, and it was one of the two charitable efforts listed on McCain’s memorial website.

McCain dies 9 years to the day after Kennedy — of the same kind of cancer

McCain’s wife, Cindy McCain, on Thursday tweeted a link to the TGen fundraising effort and as of Friday afternoon it had been retweeted more than 500 times.

“The endowed chair is the highest honor that we could give to a member of our faculty. It will be a premier scientist. Having that scientist paired with the McCain name will allow us to honor John McCain publicly and in perpetuity,” Massey said. 

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