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Using Immunotherapy to Treat Brain Tumors

In This Video

  • Unlike other cancers, brain tumors are not as responsive to immunotherapy because of the complex immune environment in the brain
  • Here, William Curry, MD, discusses the promising advancements in immunotherapy such as vaccinating patients with their own tumor cells
  • He is optimistic about progress in immunology and targeted therapies

Unlike cancers like melanoma, lymphoma, lung cancer and many others, brain tumors have not shown the same responsiveness to immunotherapy because of the immune environment of the brain. However, due to advancements in immunotherapy, William Curry, MD, co-director of Mass General Neuroscience and director of Neurosurgical Oncology, is optimistic about treating patients with brain tumors. In this video, he discusses the potential of using a personalized approach to vaccinating patients with their own tumor cells, which has demonstrated strong immune activity and safety in the lab.


What we're striving for in neuro-oncology for brain tumor patients, for cancer patients, generally speaking, is really a cure. We're ambitious about it. We want to cure these patients of their brain tumors. It's a really exciting time in oncology in general, particularly because of advances that have been made in immunotherapy. It's really the hottest thing in clinical oncology. It's the successes that have been seen with checkpoint inhibitors and cancers like melanoma, lymphoma, lung cancer, renal cell carcinoma amongst many others.

I can't say that we've seen that same success clinically in our brain tumor patients because I think the challenge is much greater because of the complexity of the immune environment in the brain, but I think we're on our way.

I have had clinical trials here translating research that we've done in the laboratory, which demonstrates the safety, the feasibility and also the very strong immune activity of vaccinating patients using their own tumor cells. It's a very personalized approach and that's work that took 10 years to build, but we were able to execute and then publish within the last couple of years. We did show that we activated T cells and B cells alike, specifically against the patient's own brain tumors. We took that work back to the laboratory and we said, "Hey. We're activating these T cells," for instance, which makes them more susceptible to modulation with some of the agents that are now FDA approved for these other cancers and perhaps that sets the stage for combinations that can be applied to enhance the impact that we're having on survival in our patients with brain tumors.

We did that in a laboratory in animal models with a couple of different combinations and we've shown really synergistic effects that I look forward to applying in the next generation of clinical trials here at Mass General. For instance, I got my immunology start here at Mass General working for Dr. Robert Martuza who is the former chair of our department and really found that he's really the, with all due respect, the grandfather of the field of oncolytic herpes viruses, which are now approved for care in melanoma. He has examined them in the brain, demonstrated their safety and we are likewise looking at combining that type of therapy with checkpoint inhibition and I have the great fortune of collaborating with Marcela Maus, MD, director of Cellular Immunotherapy at the Mass General Cancer Center, who is an expert in CAR-T cell immunotherapy and has led clinical trials there and so that is the third wing, I would say, of our current immunotherapy platform in neurosurgery and neuro-oncology against brain tumors. I'm very confident that as we make progress in immunology and targeted therapies, and a whole array of cancer therapies, making an environment where the immune system is fighting against the tumor rather than being negated by it is going to be a key pillar of success in this battle.

Refer a patient to Department of Neurosurgery at Mass General

Learn about the Stephen E. and Catherine Pappas Center for Neuro-Oncology


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