Doctors injected stem cells into a woman's brain, hoping they'll fight her cancer. Close to 23,000 Americans are diagnosed with brain cancer each year and more than half that number die. Some pioneering research may be changing that.
In California Wednesday that woman made medical history, the first human being to have stem cells injected into her brain to try to cure cancer. CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy met this pioneer patient and has an exclusive look at this ground-breaking procedure.
Jenn Vonckx has been leaning on her family a lot lately. Just three weeks ago doctors in her hometown of Seattle, Wash., told her there was nothing more they could do to treat the tumor in her brain. They gave her two months to live.
"It's a short time when they tell you that - wow - you wouldn't even believe how short it feels," says Vonckx.
She didn't know that near Los Angeles, Dr. Karen Aboody has been working on a revolutionary new cancer treatment for the very worst brain tumors called glioblastomas, the same kind Vonckx has.
These types of tumors are so invasive that until now there's been no way to get large enough amounts of chemotherapy through the blood-brain barrier. With stem cells researchers now think they've found a way.
Ten million neural stem cells with a special enzyme are injected into the brain. The stem cells seek out and attach themselves to the tumors. The patient then takes a pill containing a non-toxic drug that enters the brain. When the drug interacts with the enzyme in the stem cells, it instantaneously creates an active chemotherapy drug. The hope is that chemo will kill the tumors and leave healthy brain tissue alone.
"The chemotherapy is never going toxic all over the body. It's just being made where the tumor cells are, so in that case we should have a lot less side effect," says Aboody.
It's worked in mice but never been tried on a human until this week. Vonckx is patient no. 1.
"First in the world?" she says. "I would prefer that there have been a few people going through it before me."
But Wednesday on the morning of her surgery she is ready. Her family says goodbye and over the course of the four-hour procedure those 10 million stem cells are sent into her brain to try to fix it. It will be months before doctors know if it works.
"It's like the first step on the moon and it would just be the beginning," says Aboody.
Vonckx has some smaller steps in mind, completing a 75-mile walk around Seattle.
"I will crawl it if I have to," she says.
And she may also be giving thousands of people with brain tumors a reason to move forward and to hope.
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