Photo Credit: CBS 60 Minutes
Photo Credit: CBS 60 Minutes

On Sunday, March 29, 2015, the CBS television network broadcasted a groundbreaking episode of 60 Minutes guiding viewers through a Duke University clinical trial that uses a re-engineered polio virus to kill cancer cells in the brain.

The “Killing Cancer” episode is a two part special outlining a 10-month observation period of an experimental therapy at Duke University that tests the body’s immune system by dripping a rendering of the polio virus into glioblastoma patients.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, Glioblastoma (GBM) is a “tumor that arise from astrocytes—the star-shaped cells that make up the “glue-like,” or supportive tissue of the brain. These tumors are usually highly malignant (cancerous) because the cells reproduce quickly and they are supported by a large network of blood vessels.”

Why did Dr. Matthias Gromeier’s choose polio? He says, “As luck would have it, it seeks out and attaches to a receptor that is found on the surface of the cells that make up nearly every kind of solid tumor. It’s almost as if polio had evolved for the purpose.”

The episode follows two glioblastoma patients in particular, 20-year old Stephanie Lipscomb whose tumor was completely wiped out 3 years ago and 58-year-old Nancy Justice whose tumor is still shrinking daily. Lipscomb’s tennis ball sized tumor was completely gone after 21 months. The tumor became inflamed at first, and then began shrinking due to the immune system removing the tumors protective shield and going to war with the cancer. Justice was given a smaller dose of the polio virus and so far the tumor has continued to shrink leaving a huge hole in the center of her tumor. This is a result of the tumor being demolished from the inside out.

Since this is phase one of the trial, not all of the patients have had successful outcomes like Lipscomb and Justice. The story also follows patient Donna Clegg who was injected with a three times more potent dose than the dose that worked for Lipscomb. Due to the harsh side effects of the increased dose Clegg quit the trial, therefore leaving doctors to theorize the cause of her death is because of how strong her immune system reacted. Unfortunately this is the goal of the trial, to alter the dose in succeeding patients to find the best result.

In regard to unsuccessful trials, such as Clegg’s, Dr. Henry Friedman says, “Every patient who has an outcome that is not positive weighs on my mind. I think that when you’re doing a Phase 1 study, you know that these things can happen. And I don’t think that we helped her quality of life. We’ve learned something. And I don’t know that the family will take heart in the fact that they’re part of a legacy of passing the torch to more patients that follow. I hope that that means something to them.”

Twenty-two patients so far have participated in the polio trial. Eleven died, most of whom had higher doses and eleven continue to improve. Four patients have surpassed the six months mark, which Duke refers to as “remission.”

Groundbreaking trials such as the Duke University polio trial are made possible through donors like you. Supporting 24 Foundation means your funds go to The Brain Tumor Fund for the Carolinas (BTFC), not-for-profit organization “dedicated to increasing public awareness of the impact of brain tumors and to providing support for the development of treatment strategies and cooperative biomedical research related to brain tumors in the Charlotte region.”

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For more information on the Duke University polio trial or other brain cancer trials, visit or watch the whole 60 Minutes special here.


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