Health Team

Duke develops brain tumor-fighting vaccine

Posted April 24, 2009 5:32 p.m. EDT
Updated April 27, 2009 12:47 p.m. EDT

— A cancer patient who thought he was facing a death sentence said that Duke Hospital's research into a brain-tumor vaccine gave him a new lease on life.

A year go, Alan Ferraro, 60, of New Haven, Conn., experienced a seizure, which led to a diagnosis of stage 4 glioblastoma – a brain tumor. Doctors told Ferraro and his wife Jola that he had 40 weeks to live.

"Then the hospital sent me home, told me there was nothing they could do for me," Ferraro said.

Ferraro searched the Internet for information about his condition and found encouraging research being done at Duke's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center.

In May 2008, brain surgeon Dr. Allan Friedman said he could remove Ferraro's tumor – the same operation he was planning for a more famous patient a few days later.

"We actually left the hospital Saturday, and Sen. Ted Kennedy came Monday for surgery," Jola Ferraro said.

The Ferraros and Kennedy came to Duke because of the promising results from a brain-tumor vaccine developed by researchers there.

Just as radiation and chemotherapy work to kill any cancer cells remaining after a surgery, the vaccine targets proteins present in tumor cells.

"The vaccine is designed to really increase the immune system against that protein," said neuro-oncologist Dr. Annick Desjardin.

Ferraro visits Duke monthly to get the vaccine and undergo various tests.

The first results he got from Desjardin showed that although he wasn't cured, Ferraro's situation was looking a lot better: "No more tumor cells, so you're doing fantastic," Desjardin said.

Ferraro said he knew he was feeling better and getting stronger, but the pictures of the tests results showed why.

"I see there's nothing there, and that's pretty exciting," he said.

Duke University will host a fundraiser to benefit the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center Saturday, April 25. The Angels Among Us 5K Run and Family Fun Walk begins at 8 a.m.