Losing mom to brain cancer fuels an expert’s mission for breakthrough

Research by Gregory L. Beatty, who lost his mother to glioblastoma, and colleagues have found that immunotherapy might have some activity in patients with relapsed tumors, and a potential target location for immunotherapy in glioblastoma tumors.

As he sat by his mother’s bedside, watching her pass away, Gregory L. Beatty, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Program with the Penn Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, felt an emotion frustrating to many physicians: pure, utter helplessness.

Gregory L. Beatty holds up a fluid sample in a lab setting.
Gregory L. Beatty, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Program with the Penn Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, lost his mother to brain cancer just weeks after her diagnosis.

“When we first got her diagnosis, it was like a shockwave,” recalls Beatty, an associate professor of hematology-oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine. “As a son and a doctor, my thought was ‘how can I fix this?’ At that point, you realize how vulnerable we all are and how much we just don’t know.”

Beatty’s mother, Kathy, had glioblastoma multiforme, a rare and highly malignant cancer that affects the brain and spinal cord. Glioblastoma is so aggressive that the average survival time is only 15 months, or as little as three months if left untreated.

Before she died, her son made her a promise. “I promised my mom, even though she probably couldn’t hear me, that I would try to make a difference,” he recalls.

Beatty and a team of Penn Medicine researchers recently published breakthrough study results in Cancer Immunology Research suggesting that the immune system may be fundamental to outcomes in glioblastoma. This finding furthers the possibility that one day immunotherapy might be used to treat glioblastoma, which is notoriously resistant to traditional treatment methods.

Beatty’s research also builds on years of research at Penn exploring cellular immunotherapies—similar to those developed at Penn Medicine and approved for certain blood cancers—as a potential better option for brain tumor treatment.

“Treatment options that are typically effective in treating other cancers—options like surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—are not always enough to stop the spread of glioblastoma,” says Arati Desai, an assistant professor of clinical medicine and neurosurgery at Penn, who treated Kathy Beatty. “While Gregory’s story is a sad one, it is inspiring to see the work he and his many Penn Medicine colleagues have done and are doing to combat this terrible disease.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.