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It’s the use of precision medicine to offer a treatment for a deadly brain cancer.  

It’s already in use for lung, melanoma and even some pancreatic tumors. But for patients with glioblastoma, whose survival odds are typically just 1-2 years, the therapy hasn’t shown promise.  

Local researchers looked more carefully, however, and now they think they can extend lives. 

They searched through tumor samples in the lab to figure out why some glioblastoma patients benefit from immunotherapy while others do not.  

The answer – ERK, according to Dr. Adam Sonabend with Northwestern Medicine.  

 “We saw a clear difference between those that had high ERK vs. low ERK.” 

ERK is a biomarker.  

“To me, this is very exciting in a sense that we know these tumors are different across patients, but we keep treating them the same way,” Dr. Sonabend said.  

The more ERK present in the tumor, the better the patient responded to treatment with immunotherapy. Northwestern medicine neurosurgeon Dr.  Adam Sonabend says 20 to 30% of glioblastoma patients may now benefit from the precision medicine approach that harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight the deadly form of cancer. 

“The idea is we will take a sample of the patient and measure how much ERK and based on that we might recommend they get immunotherapy,” Dr. Sonabend said. 

Cancer cells are smart – they’ve figured out a way to turn off the body’s immune system so they can continue to grow. But ERK primes the environment – it helps the immune system reignite to fight the cancer cells. So now, Dr. Sonabend and his team want to test the target they identified under the microscope in patients.  

“For this to really take off, take now a group of patients who haven’t been treated and tell them what treatment,” Dr. Sonabend said. “If we can prolong the lives of patients in a clinical trial, then this can be implemented everywhere.” 

There are already several drugs they want to try in clinical trials. They looked at two specifically in their lab studies.