In 2006, Sandra Hilburn was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme and was given three months to live. Her diagnosis was the same as Brittany Maynard’s, the 29-year-old terminally ill cancer-patient who received national attention when she legally committed suicide with a fatal dose of phenobarbital.
After finding out she had stage IV glioblastoma multiforme and six months to live, Maynard moved from her California home to Oregon so that she could have access to the “death with dignity” prescription. Currently, in the United States, Oregon is one of five states, along with New Mexico, Montana, Washington, and Vermont that allow assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.
However, unlike Maynard, Hilburn didn’t pursue assisted suicide and is still alive today.
According to the Daily Mail, researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that a dose of tetanus vaccine let patients like Hillburn live longer when added to an experimental treatment for the brain tumor. Researcher Kristen Batich said, “[The treatment] put the immune system on high alert,’ paving the way for the experimental treatment to work better in attacking the disease.”
Now nine years and five grandchildren later, Hilburn is still alive and going strong. She said, “I think I’m good for at least another 10-years.” Hilburn, along with 11 other cancer patients, were given the tetanus shot and then doctors removed white blood cells from the patients and equipped them with a chemical target found in the tumor called cytomegalovirus. Afterward they would return the cells to the patient’s body and train the immune system to go after the cancer cells and kill them.
In a paper released Wednesday by the journal Nature, she and others describe a study of 12 patients. Some who got the tetanus shot lived years longer than those who didn’t.
The new study focused on glioblastoma, which killed Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009. Even after surgery to remove the tumor, it usually grows back and kills. The few drugs to treat these tumors have little effect. Half of patients die within about 15 months.
When diagnosed in New York in April 2006, ‘I was told I had two to three months to live,’ Sandra Hillburn recalled in a telephone interview.
But her family flew her to Duke in North Carolina because of its reputation for glioblastoma care, and she was offered a slot in the experimental study.
I was very positive it would help,’ Hillburn said. ‘I said, “Sure, thank you.” I’m still saying thank you.’ In the years since then, she has attended her son’s wedding and gained five more grandchildren. Now she plays soccer with six grandsons in Ohio and Boston.
‘I look forward to seeing the wonderful people they’re becoming,’ she said.
She continues to visit Duke once a month for more cell injections. Last November, she celebrated her 100th treatment. Dr Sampson said it’s not clear why she has lived so long.
Hillburn credits the treatment and her medical care at Duke. She also cited the example of her father, who is a 97-year-old survivor of two kinds of cancer.
‘He just went about his life, and so I did the same thing.
The 12 patients in the new study were treated with a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. All patients got an ordinary tetanus-diphtheria shot and then three injections of their own cells, spaced two weeks apart.
Then they were randomly divided into two groups. One group got a second, tiny dose of the tetanus-diphtheria vaccine at the place in the skin where the cells would be injected the next day. The other group got a dummy dose.
The idea behind the tetanus mini-shot was that the immune system “gets revved up in this particular area” so that “the body will be more excited about what’s to come,” Sampson said.
Cell injections continued monthly until brain scans showed tumor growing.
For the six patients who got the dummy shot, only one was still alive two years after diagnosis, surviving for about 3½ years. Still, overall results for this group indicated a small benefit from the cell injections alone, Batich said.
The results were far better for patients who got the mini-shot of tetanus. Four surpassed two years. One of them lived almost five years and another nearly six years.