Dr. Charles Cobbs, a California Pacific Medical Center neurosurgeon, removes a brain tumor from a patient.
As a young neurosurgery resident at UCSF in the late ’90s, Dr. Charles Cobbs developed a hunch about brain tumors. It was a theory that he now concedes “was not based on a lot of scientific things.”
Cobbs had observed that his patients diagnosed with malignant glioma - an aggressive brain cancer that leaves victims with a two-year life expectancy - were mostly older, well-educated and from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
Their “hyper-hygienic” lifestyles had possibly left their immune systems susceptible to more common viruses, such as the human cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a herpes virus so ubiquitous that it infects 4 of 5 Americans.
During off-hours, and without formal research funding, Cobbs and a lab partner analyzed dozens of brain tumor samples: All of them were riddled with CMV.
In 2002, the doctor published his novel finding in a leading medical journal Cancer Research where it was quickly dismissed by many of his peers.
"I was left with a lot of self doubt," said Cobbs, now 45. "My fear was that we’d done something incorrect. But now, my confidence is growing."
In February, brain cancer researchers at Duke University Medical Center published the first peer-reviewed report that confirmed Cobbs’ discovery, followed by two reports from independent labs at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas in Houston and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. And this month, the National Brain Tumor Society is sponsoring a first-of-its-kind gathering in Boston of the world’s top virologists and glioma experts to examine the possible link between CMV and the deadly brain tumors that are diagnosed in 10,000 Americans every year.
"His discovery opens the door and has broad implications in this field," said Dr. Duane Mitchell, a Duke University Medical Center researcher who is conducting vaccine trials based on Cobb’s findings. “And the door has just been opened.”
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