PHOENIX — It's been five years since Senator John McCain died after battling glioblastoma. So, how much has treatment and outlook for patients changed since then? ABC15 went to the Ivy Brain Tumor Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute to find out.
The center in Phoenix is a nonprofit translational research program that offers state-of-the-art clinical trials for patients with aggressive brain tumors.
Heather Knies has been going there for over a decade. She tells us she will never forget the start of her brain cancer journey.
"Sure enough, he clipped up to this light and saw this big white thing and he goes, 'you have a brain tumor,' and I still remember it to this day. That just sucks the wind out of your lungs, and I have what, you know, my whole life in front of me," said Knies.
Like so many patients, she was studied as part of her diagnosis.
"They're educated. They understand what they're facing. They know that what has been tried before them hasn't worked and so that's where clinical trials and experimental therapies come in," said Knies.
Dr. Nadar Sanai, director of the Ivy Brain Tumor Center, tells us he's realistic about what brain cancer patients are up against.
"You know, developing drugs for brain cancer patients is an uphill battle. It's not that pharmaceuticals and biotechs don't want to help. It's just that the market size for brain cancer patients is far smaller than it is for other cancer patients," said Dr. Sanai.
He tells us that's where trials come in.
"In the last five years, the Ivy center has introduced more new early-phase clinical trials than any center in the country, and we're leading the field in trying new therapeutics in these patients and clever ways of getting them there. Because sometimes it's not just about the drug you're giving, but whether it's getting the tumor itself," said Dr. Sanai.
"One way they've found to get to the tumor is through an IV in the patient's wrist, threading a microcatheter up the arm, past the heart, through their neck vessel to the very base of the tumor," Dr. Sanai explained.
"Then at that moment, with this catheter dock there, we release an agent that opens up what's called the blood-brain barrier, which is this protective lining that prevents drugs from getting into the tumor. And then when it's open, that's when we flood it with the new drug. And so, this has been a revolution for us in terms of getting (the) new drug in. It's increased the amount of drug we get into a tumor by up to 250-fold," said Dr. Sanai.
This delivery method is in trials but Dr. Sanai calls it a game changer.
It's progress that patients like Knies, who was given just six months to live back in 2006, are grateful for.
"I am better than I could ever be. Yeah, I'm grateful that I have my health," said Knies.
Today, she is using her voice to help others diagnosed with brain cancer.
"I want to encourage them, that you don't have to be a statistic. You can be the outlier," said Knies.
She supports cancer patients through her webpage, HeathersPromise.com.
Since, John McCain's death, it may feel like glioblastoma is more prevalent, but Dr. Sanai tells us it's just more awareness.
By the way, Sen. McCain's son, Andy, serves on the Board of Directors for the Ivy Brain Tumor Center.
To learn more about their research and clinical trials, head to their website.