Does A Virus Cause Brain Cancer?

In April, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure and the National Brain Tumor Society co-sponsored a workshop examining the link between the cytomegalovirus (CMV) and brain cancer.  The meeting was held in Washington, DC and organized by Dr. Charles Cobbs of California Pacific Medical Center - a pioneering researcher in the field. World-renowned virologists, immunologists and neuro-oncologists participated in the discussions, including: Drs. Duane Mitchell from Duke Medicine, Susan Chang from UCSF,  Nino Chiocca from University of Ohio, and Amy Heimberger from MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The group exchanged ideas and study results that they hope will bring the scientific community closer to proving or disproving the theory that a common herpes virus called cytomegalovirus or CMV causes and/or promotes growth of glioblastoma multiforme - the most aggressive form of brain cancer.

Drs. Cobbs and Mitchell have devoted much of their scientific careers to this intriguing theory. Dr. Cobbs became interested nearly 10 years ago when he discovered that significant amounts CMV were active in the brain tumor cells of 27 patients. In 2007, Dr. Mitchell's lab at Duke confirmed that CMV was active in over 80% of glioblastoma tumors. 

While there seems to be some link, many questions remain unaswered. Why is CMV extremely wide-spread, but usually harmless, in most humans?  Why is active CMV prevalent in the majority of GBM patients, but not all? Are tumor cells simply breeding grounds for the virus, since tumor cells often lack the normal immune function that attacks CMV?

Whether the virus causes brain cancer or not, it is proving to be a useful target for new GBM therapies. In 2006, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, the Brain Tumor Society and NIH helped fund a Duke vaccine study that targeted brain tumors by going after active CMV virus.  Drs. John Sampson and Duane Mitchell led the study team and presented their results in 2008.  Using the vaccine with radiation and standard chemotherapy, patients average life span increased from 14 months to more than 20.  Today, Duke continues its GBM vaccine work with single-center phase one and phase two trials that target cytomegalovirus.


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