(Note: this story was prepared before the COVID pandemic.)

Like many patients with glioblastoma, 28-year-old Valerie Galvin had run out of options. She and her M Health Fairview doctors had tried everything, from resection to radiation and chemotherapy to transcranial magnetic stimulation. Her tumor kept coming back and was eventually in a location that made it dangerous to surgically remove. But Valerie – and her doctors – weren’t willing to give up.

Clark C. Chen, MD, PhD

A discussion with her oncologist led Valerie to a Phase II clinical trial that Neurosurgery Department Head Clark C. Chen (pictured at left), MD, PhD had initiated at the University – the only site in the state offering the trial. “From the time I had my first consultation, Dr. Chen was calm and reassuring,” she said. “He clearly has a wealth of knowledge and experience with glioblastoma. At the very beginning, he couldn't promise that this trial would help me since it is new research, but his perspective on the disease gave me comfort and helped me keep my expectations realistic.”

One-two punch
Valerie is participating in an innovative study designed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of a new immunotherapy treatment strategy consisting of two parts, The first is a surgical infusion of a genetically engineered adenovirus designed to destroy the tumor. The second stage involves treatment with pembrolizumab, a drug designed to boost the body’s immune response against the tumor. The idea behind the new therapy is that the virus will destroy the tumor, releasing its proteins. “The drug amplifies the capacity of the immune system to mount a response against these proteins, enabling eradication of the tumor,” said Chen.

No evidence of tumor
Her results are stunning. “As best as we can tell, the tumor had melted away,” said Chen. “There has been no evidence of it on her MRIs for almost two years now. Frankly, this is uncharted territory.”

Having had such a dramatic response to the clinical trial treatment opened Valerie up to living again. “I had returned to my home in Mauritius for a couple of weeks because I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to see my family again,” she said. “Now that the glioblastoma is essentially gone, I can look forward to all the new memories I can create.”

Every day a blessing
Valerie’s husband, Robert, is cautiously optimistic about her recovery. “I’m still not telling myself we’re out of the woods yet because it could come back at any time,” he said. “Based on how it was growing when she was first diagnosed, I felt I would lose her in a matter of months. Then it began shrinking until there was no sign of it and every day feels like a blessing.”

His wife’s journey with this disease had a dramatic impact on Robert’s educational trajectory. “She was diagnosed halfway through my residency,” he said. “I’m currently a fellow in pediatric oncology at the U and will finish in two years. I now want to do an extra year to be able to treat pediatric brain tumors.”

Didn’t do it alone
When Valerie thinks about her trial results, she recognizes that she wasn’t alone on this journey. “It isn’t just me who beat down this cancer but my entire care team – and the philanthropy and research that made it all possible,” she said. “I truly hope the results of my participation in the trial not only benefit me but can become an option for others facing such a scary diagnosis.” 

Robert added that, “When people go online and learn about the statistics associated with glioblastoma, they might be reading information that is decades old. They don’t realize how many advances have been made in treating this brain cancer. There are a lot of trials and other treatments that are available.”

Hope for the future
Reflecting on Valerie’s response to the treatment, Chen noted that while cures are still rare with glioblastoma, he is starting to see more and more patients responding to ongoing clinical trials. “We are celebrating the life-changing impacts of this trial for Valerie. We are celebrating Valerie’s brave determination and continue to cheer her on in her journey” he said. “We would like to have more of these celebrations for glioblastoma patients.”

Chen believes that winning the battle against glioblastoma will demand the same mindset that was key to sending the first man to the moon. As President John F. Kennedy so eloquently expressed, we will need, “...to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”