When 20-year-old Stephanie Lipscomb complained of severe headaches her doctors performed a brain scan. The horrible truth revealed by the test turned the young woman’s world upside down and left her completely dumbfounded, but it also represented the beginning of a remarkable journey.
Stephanie began experiencing headaches in 2010 when she was a first-year nursing student at the University of South Carolina Upstate. The young resident of Spartanburg, South Carolina decided to do the sensible thing and see a doctor.
Although Stephanie was concerned she didn’t suspect anything serious. Indeed, the doctor explained that she’d been suffering from chronic migraines, the cause of which isn’t entirely understood.
But when Stephanie didn’t respond to her treatment of caffeine pills the doctor sought other explanations. It was concluded that she had a sinus infection, for which she was prescribed antibiotics.
But not only did the strange headaches persist, they got even worse. “By that point,” Stephanie told ABC News, “my migraines were so bad, I couldn’t eat anything without throwing it back up. I couldn’t bathe myself. I couldn’t dress myself.”
Stephanie’s grandparents, who were worried that she may have meningitis, eventually took her to hospital. When doctors performed a CT scan of her brain they found something totally unexpected.
The results revealed that the cause of Stephanie’s headaches was, in fact, a tumor as big as a tennis ball. Worse yet, it was glioblastoma – the most dangerous type of brain cancer.
The diagnosis left Stephanie completely shocked; she could barely believe what doctors were telling her. To make matters worse the devastated girl was told that she’d have a maximum of five years left to live.
Most glioblastoma sufferers, however, don’t make it past 18 months. Even if this type of tumor is successfully targeted it has a habit of returning once treatment stops, at which point the patient may only have a matter of months.
Not wanting to waste any time, doctors scheduled Stephanie for surgery to have the tumor removed. But because glioblastoma is so aggressive the young patient was required to follow up the procedure with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Although Stephanie soldiered through treatments that left her tired and ill, two years later her doctors discovered that the cancer was back. It then looked as if all hope was lost.
But neurologist Dr. Annick Desjardins of Duke University offered Stephanie one last option: an experimental medical trial. The patient qualified owing to her youth and because the tumor was located in the frontal part of her brain.
The highly unusual trial involved a modified version of the polio virus that was engineered to destroy brain tumors. It would exploit the virus’ ability to unlock, invade and destroy a particular cell.
The trial was spearheaded by Duke’s Dr. Matthias Gromeier, who spent some 20 years studying, testing, and modifying the polio virus to treat various forms of cancer. If Stephanie accepted she would become the researcher’s first actual patient.
Whereas the polio virus would normally use a special molecule to enter brain cells, Dr. Gromeier removed its ability to multiply and kill healthy cells by combining it with the common cold virus. The new customized virus would therefore only kill cancer cells; the rest of the brain would be left unharmed.
When Dr. Gromeier first suggested the innovative cancer treatment decades ago his coworkers, apparently, thought he was insane. Their response, it turned out, only motivated him further.
Stephanie’s mom had a similar reaction to the unconventional treatment – why would doctors want to introduce something potentially harmful to her suffering daughter’s body? But Stephanie, whose nursing knowledge gave her a scientific outlook, was quick to accept the offer of treatment.
Stephanie knew she was taking a risk but this was, ultimately, her only shot at survival. After doctors sedated her they drilled a tiny hole into her skull to administer the virus, via a tube, into her brain. The frightening procedure took six and a half hours.
Although it didn’t look like the treatment had any effect at first, Stephanie’s tumor began to shrink a few months later before eventually disappearing completely. Dr. Gromeier said it was “most gratifying” to witness the woman’s amazing recovery.
Despite the happy ending to Stephanie’s story Dr. Gromeier has warned that there’s a small chance of the cancer returning. He hopes that, after more trials, his innovative, potentially life-changing treatment can be used on other types of cancer to save patients’ lives.