Glioblastoma Survivor Credits Vaccine Developed at Cedars-Sinai

Mary Wong Lee

Every day is a gift. No one knows that better than Mary Wong Lee.

When she was diagnosed with a walnut-sized brain tumor, she believed she had only months to live. That was a decade ago. Mary, now 65, still values every moment she has to share with her sons and her husband.

She had an aggressive, rapidly growing form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. She agreed to try an investigative therapy — a vaccine, developed at Cedars-Sinai that activated her immune system to fight the cancer. She credits the vaccine with saving her life.

Mary enjoys golfing with her family.

Mary is not alone. The response to the vaccine and associated treatment has been promising, according to neurologists at Cedars-Sinai.

When Mary received her diagnosis, she was devastated. "I was thinking my kids were still in college, I hadn’t seen them graduate from college, or see them get married," she said. "There’s no doubt in my mind the vaccine worked."

Mary initially went to the doctor because sudden migraines left her unable to speak, interfered with her ability to write and turned her thinking cloudy. Her family physician wept when he delivered the news of her diagnosis and what it most likely meant: She would have 15 to 18 months to live.

They went to Keith L. Black, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurological Institute, and weighed their treatment options. Standard chemotherapy and radiation therapy alone were unlikely to have favorable outcomes.

Mary qualified for what was then an early clinical trial for a brain cancer vaccine. The clinical trial’s purpose was to assess the safety and effectiveness of an investigational vaccine to fight brain cancer.

A patient’s own tumor cells are used to create a targeted immunotherapy, conditioning the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as invaders and attack.

Mary was one of the first patients to receive this treatment. She also underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove the tumor. Typically, fewer than 3 percent of people diagnosed with glioblastoma live five years.

"I’ve been working with this cancer for over 30 years, and we did a lot of different studies, a lot of different treatments," Black said. "You just don’t see those types of responses."

Cedars-Sinai has been studying these vaccines for more than 15 years and is home to the largest brain cancer vaccine clinical trials in the United States. The vaccine used to treat Mary is now in its third phase, when larger numbers of patients are given an investigational treatment to validate its effectiveness.

"Survival has doubled or tripled for some patients," said John S. Yu, MD, vice chair of Neurosurgical Oncology in the Department of Neurosurgery. "Even those with the most devastating disease, with the research we’re doing, we may offer hope for living longer."

Mary remains grateful for the vaccine. It’s given her countless moments of happiness and meaningful milestones: a chance to see Kevin graduate from college. Wiping away a tear at the wedding of her oldest son, Michael. Kissing her grandson Connor’s forehead when he was just a newborn and clapping over his first birthday cake. Sharing the pleasures of grandparenthood with her husband, Ed.

"I didn’t expect to be here this long, and I’m sure I would tell everybody the same thing," Mary said. "It doesn’t mean your life is going to be short. It can be done."

Financial disclosure: John S. Yu, MD, who has a leadership role in the Neurological Institute, serves as a board member for ImmunoCellular Therapeutics, Ltd., which sponsors the Phase III trial. However, Dr. Yu is not an investigator on the brain vaccine trials. In addition, Cedars-Sinai has a financial interest in this study, as the institution is a minor shareholder of ImmunoCellular's stock.

Mary is a grateful patient and supporter of the Campaign for Cedars-Sinai. Learn more about the Campaign.

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