Sen. McCain’s death draws attention to brain cancer research

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AUSTIN — Treatment options for brain tumors are undergoing extensive research, with some clinical trials taking place in Texas. 

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, died Saturday from glioblastoma. It’s the same brain cancer that killed former Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau. It’s an aggressive cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. 

“The reality is that glioblastoma is a terrible diagnosis unfortunately, because we don’t have any curative therapy available,” Dr. Andrew Brenner, neuro-oncologist with Texas Oncology’s Austin Brain Tumor Center, said. “When these cases do occur, as tragic as they are, they do raise awareness.” 

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, nearly 80,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor in 2018 and more than 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor today. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports glioblastoma has an incidence of two to three per 100,000 adults each year and accounts for 52 percent of all primary brain tumors. 

Brenner says Texas Oncology has at least a dozen clinical trials at any point for glioblastoma cases. Patients are covered by the funding that’s dedicated specifically to the research and if they receive any standard care while on a clinical trial, the insurance company or Medicare has to cover the costs. 

“Our goal is to have clinical trials at every point of the patient’s disease course,” he said. 

There’s been a recent push towards more immunotherapy trials based on its success in other tumor types. 

“Basically, we are trying new ways of bringing therapy to patients that includes activating the immune system, targeting specific mutations within the tumor that are unique to the individual’s tumor,” Brenner said. 

LIVESTRONG President Greg Lee says his organization helps patients, families and caregivers identify different possibilities to receive care, including the possibility of participating in a clinical trial. 

“We gather a lot of information about the patient upfront – their age, their ethnicity, their demographics, all the information about their disease and then use that in a number of database mechanisms to try to find the right clinical trial that they’re eligible for and fit all the requirements for,” he said. 

McCain spoke at LIVESTRONG’s Presidential Cancer Summit in 2008. Lee says McCain was dedicated to helping the cancer community and drew attention to the patient-centered work that needs to happen. 

“I think the one thing I learned from Sen. McCain is that you have to address problems from all different levels – a multifaceted approach where you’re attacking things from all different areas is probably more successful than just a singular approach in one area.” 

However, some patients may not qualify for a clinical trial. Doctors have to evaluate a patient’s information on a case-by-case basis. 

“We do take patients as individuals and so that does mean doing things like molecular profiling of the tumor,” Brenner said. “We actually do send the tumors off to look at any mutations that might’ve occurred during the tumor’s development. Some of those might be very critical to the tumor’s growth. 

LIVESTRONG also connects patients with emotional support and insurance consultation appointments as well. Lee hopes clinical trials will continue to gain support nationwide and that families don’t shy away as participating in these trials when they receive the news about cancer. 

“We have to increase the awareness with the general public,” he said. “Sometimes the public thinks of a clinical trial as a last resort when other treatments haven’t worked and that’s really not true. People need to have access to clinical trials from the minute they’re diagnosed and understand what options are available.” 

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