Although there has been a double-digit decline in all cancers, treatment and prevention remain major concerns for most people and health professionals. Recently, the focus has been on brain cancer after Senator Ted Kennedy passed away on August 25, 2009. It's a loss keenly felt in the cancer community as Kennedy was an avid advocate for a cure.

In a press release, John R. Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said: "Truly one of the great champions in this battle to fight cancer, Senator Kennedy has led a passionate effort against this disease during his more than 40 years in the U.S. Senate, championing health care-related causes from equal access to health care to increased funding for cancer research and screening for early detection."

For many people, brain cancer remains largely misunderstood, but greatly feared. The cause of most central nervous system tumors is still not completely understood, states the ACS. In most cases, brain cancer appears to develop without explanation and isn't connected to something you do or don't do, or any environmental factors. In addition, there is no early screening for brain cancer--it is often revealed when a person starts to have symptoms.

Senator Kennedy succumbed to one of the deadliest forms of cancer--a malignant glioma. Eight out of 10 malignant brain tumors are gliomas, according to the ACS, and they are a group of cancers that begin in the glial cells in the brain. The prognosis is often bleak: In ACS statistics, the survival rate for gliomas past the age of 55 is just one percent. Between ages 20 and 44 it's only 13 percent.  Survival rates vary widely by age, and the type and location of the tumor, states the ACS.

Brain cancer can strike at any age, although it's more likely between ages 75 and 84-- Senator Kennedy was diagnosed at 76 years old. The risk of getting a brain tumor is quite small - about one in 182 for a woman and one in 150 for a man. However, what may be more reassuring than a low risk of getting the disease is knowing that innovative treatments are improving the outlook for brain cancer survival.

Brain Cancer Vaccine Offers Hope for Deadliest Brain Tumors

According to the ACS, the most common forms of treatment for brain cancer are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and biological therapies. Treatment is dependent on the type of tumor, and in some cases, the location. For instance, it might not be possible to treat a glioma called low-grade astrocytomas with surgery because they infiltrate surrounding normal brain tissue. In cases such as these--and in general--a variety of treatments may be combined for better outcomes.

A new vaccine for glioblastoma multiforme--a type of glioma--may also boost treatment outcome and survival rates. Last year Pfizer and Avant (through its subsidiary Celldex Therapeutics) announced that they were joining forces to bring to market a vaccine to treat this most common form of brain cancer. The vaccine is referred to as CDX-110 and is currently still in trials.

The companies claim that this brain cancer vaccine will trigger or enhance an immune attack against the tumor-specific molecule EGFRvIIIon to reduce the time to tumor recurrence and improve survival rate. At this year's annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the companies presented research from two clinical trials.

In one study they found that the median overall survival was 26 months and median time to progression (TTP) was just over 14 months. Three patients did not experience a relapse more than four years after undergoing surgery. In a second group of patients who were given CDX-110 with temozolomide after undergoing chemoradiation with temozolomide, the TTP was just over 15 months and three patients had no relapse even after more than 24 months. The most common side effect of treatment in both trials was reaction at the injection site.

A Drug Cocktail for Brain Cancer Treatment on Tap

Another cancer treatment waiting in the wings is a three-drug cocktail under development by researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. They have discovered that three different proteins occur in high amounts in glioblastoma multiforme tumors. So far, they have created two drugs to target two of the three proteins that are highly prevalent in this form of brain cancer, and a third is under development to target the third protein.

A New Way to Predict Brain Cancer Survival

Researchers from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center have unveiled a new tool to help predict brain cancer survival after just one week of beginning treatment. Called the parametric response map, it's an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging test) doctors can use to monitor increases and decreases in the tumor blood volume, which correlates with the survival rate. As a result, they can determine much earlier if treatment is being effective and make appropriate changes to the course of treatment to improve survival rates.

Sources: Celldex Therapeutics press release "Pfizer and AVANT Enter into Licensing and Development Agreement for Novel Therapeutic Vaccine Candidate for Brain Cancer."

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical School press release "Research Suggests New Treatment Suitable for All Patients With Least-Curable Brain Tumors"

University of Michigan Health System press release, "New imaging analysis predicts brain tumor survival"