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Seattle Scientist's Discovery Leads to Promising Brain Cancer Results

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A promising but preliminary new studybased on a Seattle scientist's discovery has shown dramatic increases in survival for people with brain cancer.

Charles Cobbs, now head of the Ben and Cathy Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, figured out a key feature of the most common kind of brain tumor, glioblastoma.

The tumor appears to be connected to a virus that most of us carry, called CVM. It’s harmless in most people, but for some, it seems to promote tumor growth.

So a team in Sweden tried giving cancer patients a drug, called Valcyte, that attacks the virus. The results were significant.

“Well, there's nothing else that has even come close to that level of success that I'm aware of,” said Cobbs, who was not directly involved in the study.

Of the people who received the drug, 62 percent were alive two years after diagnosis — compared to 18 percent for those who received  the standard treatment. For the 25 people who continued to receive the drug after the initial six-month trial, the survival rate was 90 percent.

“It’s a quantum-leap difference compared to anything that has come before. And of course, that draws immediately a lot of skepticism from the people who have been around for a long time,” Cobbs said.

Experts say skepticism is warranted here. The study is imperfect; it started out looking for one thing, and had to sort of switch course later in the game. That, plus the small sample size—just 50 patients—makes these results less reliable.

Still, Cobbs says it’s encouraging. He hopes to coordinate a large study out of Seattle to confirm the findings.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.