Immunotherapy Offering New Hope for Glioblastoma

September 2, 2020

For several months, Roger Cooney knew something just wasn’t right. He had started experiencing forgetfulness. His energy was zapped, and increasingly he spent more time in bed—fatigued during the day and sleepless at night. Sometimes he would zone out while watching television.

“I chalked up all of these changes to stress,” says Roger’s wife, Lucinda Cooney. “Roger was running two businesses, which he was in the process of trying to sell.”

During the many sleepless nights, Roger would research his symptoms online. “By the time we went to the hospital, I was anticipating what the doctor was going to tell me,” he says. On September 8, 2019, Roger got checked out at the Emergency Department at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Doctors performed a CAT scan, which confirmed his suspicions: A brain tumor was responsible for all of his recent symptoms.

Wasting No Time

Tests revealed that Roger’s tumor was multifocal, which means it was in more than one spot in his brain, says his neuro-oncologist Joseph Landolfi, D.O. “The most concerning and aggressive area was in the right frontal lobe,” Dr. Landolfi says. “So we scheduled surgery right away.”

Just two days later, neurosurgeon Aasim Kazmi, M.D., performed the surgery at Jersey Shore and found more frightening news. Roger’s tumor was a glioblastoma, which is an aggressive form of cancer in the brain that grows and spreads quickly.

“That changed our lives instantly. Hearing that news was, of course, traumatic and terribly sad. The prognosis was awful,” Lucinda says. “Dr. Landolfi explained that Roger’s condition wasn’t curable, but it was treatable.”

Treatment post-surgery included radiation and chemotherapy done together, followed by monthly chemotherapy alone. “Unfortunately, scans done in January showed concerns with the tumor on the right side of Roger’s brain—not where the surgery took place, but a new area beneath it that had grown,” Dr. Landolfi says. “I was obviously concerned about the progressive and recurrent disease.”

“That news was just devastating,” Lucinda says. But it brought a silver lining. “Dr. Landolfi told us that it fortunately meant that Roger was a candidate for a clinical trial that was starting up at JFK Medical Center. Roger and I agreed to participate right away.”

Another Option Emerges

The clinical trial, from biotechnology company Ziopharm, is for patients with recurrent glioblastoma who have received surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. As part of the trial:

  • Roger first received an intravenous chemotherapy drug, known as checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy, which allows the immune system to recognize the tumor.
  • A week later, he had surgery, during which a virus was injected into the tissue surrounding the tumor.
  • Just before surgery, Roger took a pill that would activate the virus to create a substance that triggers the immune system.
  • He continued taking the pill daily for 14 days after surgery, and he continues to receive the intravenous immunotherapy drug every three weeks.

“Between the virus being activated to create this substance to trigger the immune system, and the immunotherapy drug that causes a larger immune response, we are essentially using the patient’s own body to attack the tumor,” Dr. Landolfi says.

Uncertainty but Hope

Roger currently receives MRI scans every two months to see how the tumor has progressed. The goal is to monitor the tumor’s growth. “His first three scans have looked good, showing little to no growth, which is what we hope to see at this point,” Dr. Landolfi says.

Lucinda remains hopeful. “Dr. Landolfi explained to us that we want to see non-growth and will keep following it and following it,” she says. “Right now, our life is MRI to MRI. But I feel like I’m finally getting a little sigh of relief, and I’m hopeful that things will stay the same for a while.”

Adds Roger, “I’m trying to stay positive.”

Today, he isn’t experiencing any pain or headaches, but he doesn’t have much strength and has lost quite a bit of weight. He is slowly getting back to one of his favorite hobbies: golf. He tries to play once a week. “I don’t play as well as I used to. I used to be pretty good at golf, so it’s a little frustrating,” Roger says. “But I need to understand that I can’t expect to shoot a 75 anymore.”

Both Roger and Lucinda are grateful for the support network of family and friends surrounding them, including their son and his wife, their daughter and her boyfriend, Roger’s sisters and Roger’s golfing buddies—and even their first grandchild born in April.

They’re equally grateful for their support system at JFK, including Dr. Landolfi and his nurses. “Dr. Landolfi has always been so honest with us and down-to-earth, and we’ve always fully trusted him. And I can call his nurse anytime when I need guidance about changes I’m seeing or what Roger’s diet should be, for example,” Lucinda says. “Everyone has been just incredible to us.”

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