PEORIA — In the days since Sen. John McCain’s death, Americans have learned the name of one of the deadliest and most common brain tumors: glioblastoma.
In Peoria, about 100 patients receive this fatal diagnosis every year.
Kiran Velpula, an assistant professor in the Department of Cancer Biology and Pharmacology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, has been studying these tumors and working toward a cure for 10 years alongside Andrew Tsung, a neurosurgeon at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center.
“We are trying to understand how the cancer cells live and grow,” Velpula said, simplifying a fairly complicated endeavor. “We are trying to identify what happens when you rub off the cancer’s energy leaving the healthy brain cells intact, and maybe that will be a better way to treat the glioblastoma.”
The partnership of a professor and a surgeon is uncommon but gives the advantage of additional perspective.
Because he interacts directly with brain cancer patients, Tsung said he can identify “practical problems” and bring them to the laboratory where together they work toward solutions, like an architect and a builder.
The greatest problem they face is the recurring nature of the tumor: “100 percent, it comes back,” Velpula said.
Besides chemotherapy and radiation, the only treatment being administered to glioblastoma patients is a drug called temozolomide, which was identified in 2005, Velpula said. Based on their research, the drug kills the cancer cells initially but cannot prevent the tumor from growing back.
About 70 percent of Peoria’s glioblastoma cases are also treated surgically, Velpula said. However, as the tumor grows, it invades healthy brain cells, like “mixing up black and white sand,” making surgery more difficult.
Glioblastomas are spontaneous and detrimental, with no known cause and a survival rate of 12 to 16 months, Velpula said. McCain’s death came 13 months after his diagnosis and one day after discontinuing treatment.
The duo's long-term goal is to develop new therapeutic drugs that will control the growth of the cancer, but their research is currently in the preclinical stage, as they work to identify what the drugs will target.
Once a drug is developed, it usually takes seven to 10 years for clinical trials to begin, Tsung said.
And a decade of research is expensive.
The Velpula-Tsung lab is funded in part by the Mark Linder Walk for the Mind, an annual fundraiser organized by area residents whose lives have been affected by various brain tumors.
The walk has raised more than $650,000 since its inception, bringing a record $80,000 last year.
Registration for the 16th annual mile-long walk will begin at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 29 at the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center and is also available online.
A short program will precede the walk at 9:15 a.m., and a raffle, kids games and face painting will be available inside the RiverPlex.
Peggy Flannigan, who is a brain tumor survivor, has been chairwoman of the walk since its namesake Mark Linder died of brain cancer in 2005.
She said McCain’s death may bring more attention and funding to the cause this year, but mostly it will remind those who have known someone with a tumor to support the cause because there is still no cure.
“We want to be able to give to this cause as much as we can,” she said. “I would love to see a brain tumor cured in my lifetime.”
All of the proceeds from the walk will support the glioblastoma research because as Velpula said, “You need to give the opportunity to try.”
Kelsey Watznauer can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kwatznauer.