An experimental therapy for a form of brain cancer, like what killed Sen. John McCain, has been developed by OMRF.
On the day before Thanksgiving in 2015, Mike Schuster was diagnosed with glioblastoma.
Glioblastoma is a form of brain cancer, and it claimed the lives of Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy. The standard treatment regimen involves surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.
Still, the tumor almost always grows back. With treatment, the median survival from time of diagnosis (meaning half of patients live longer, and half die sooner) is 12 to 18 months.
Mike underwent the usual course of treatment: surgery, radiation, chemo. But a year later, his tumor grew back. After a second surgery, he was pretty much out of options; having reached his body’s limits from radiation and chemo, he could no longer rely on them to keep his cancer in check.
Mike told his physician, Dr. James Battiste of the Stephenson Cancer Center, that he was willing to try anything to beat back the glioblastoma. He’d read about clinical trials of experimental medications. Was there one that might help him?
As it turned out, Battiste was leading a clinical trial that, he said, “just seemed perfect for Mike.” The trial was designed to test OKN-007, an experimental therapy for glioblastoma. The therapy had been born just down the street from Stephenson, in the labs of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
An experimental drug
Earlier this week, OMRF announced that Oblato, a biotechnology company, had acquired all rights to OKN007. In trials led by Battiste, the company has been testing the compound’s safety at Stephenson since 2016.
“We’ve gone to the highest dosage levels the FDA would allow, and we haven’t seen any negative effects from the drug,” Battiste said.
The next step will be to initiate what are known as phase II trials. Those will continue to look at the drug’s safety but also study its effectiveness in treating glioblastoma.
Meanwhile, working with OMRF’s Dr. Rheal Towner — who, along with Dr. Robert Floyd, discovered OKN-007 as a treatment for glioblastoma — Battiste has been refining therapeutic approaches for the drug. Using data they’ve generated both in patients and laboratory experiments, the pair now believes the drug may prove even more effective when combined with a common form of chemotherapy.
Based on this data, Oblato has begun a second clinical trial in which patients receive both OKN-007 and the chemotherapy drug.
There is, of course, no guarantee that OKN-007 will ultimately prove effective. Still, this latest development is a big step forward.
Since the late 1980s — yes, 1980s! — OMRF has funded the research that led to this experimental drug. Along the way, there have been setbacks too numerous to mention. But through it all, support from donors and partners like Stephenson and i2e, which made a significant investment at a crucial moment, have helped us keep this project alive.
Now, Oblato will use its resources and expertise to try to bring this drug to patients around the world.
A life transformed
Nearly two years after beginning treatment with OKN-007, Mike Schuster continues to travel from his home each week to receive infusions of the drug at Stephenson. This month marks three years since his initial diagnosis, meaning that he’s doubled the expected life span for glioblastoma patients.
Mike stopped by OMRF a few months ago, and he looked great. Now 53, he said he felt strong and, unlike many other brain tumor patients, he’d even put on some weight.
“I’ve also been able to get back to the gym and so some yard work,” he said. “I feel really great.”
Of course, neither doctors nor scientists can know whether OKN-007 is responsible for keeping Mike’s cancer at bay. Still, he feels like he made the right call to participate in the clinical trial.
“Let’s just say I’ve been very blessed,” he said. “It’s pretty cool how this stuff is working.”
A physician and medical researcher, Prescott is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and can be reached at email@example.com.