Watch live: ‘Everyday’

Malaria drug successfuly used to fight brain cancer at CU Cancer Center

AURORA, Colo. -- A brain cancer patient who had become resistant to chemotherapy and other treatments is recovering better than before thanks to a drug designed in 1950 to fight malaria.

The science behind the use of the anti-malaria drug, chloroquine, was in large part built in the lab at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora.

Lisa Rosendahl was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, when she was 21 years old. Doctors said she had just months to live and she began chemotherapy treatments.

“When Lisa first started on the drug that targeted her gene mutation, she had a really great response and the tumor went away,” Dr. Jean Mulcahy Levy at the University of Colorado Cancer Center said. “But unfortunately over a period of time, her tumor cells became resistant to the drug.”

Rosendahl's tumor was spreading and hope was fading.

“At that point we really had no other options to treat her,” Levy said.

But Levy’s work in the lab, which is focused on using chloroquine, provided a new treatment option for Rosendahl.

Knowing that Rosendahl's tumor was positive for BRAF mutation, they added the anti-malaria drug to her targeted drugs and they found when combined, Rosendahl was no longer resistant to treatment.

“Although we’re not at 100 percent cure, we’ve definitely found a way to extend her life,” Levy said. “Give her a better quality of life and allow her to do the things she’s always wanted to do.”

Rosendahl said she feels much better than she did while receiving chemotherapy, and is visiting the hospital much less frequently.

“With chloroquine it’s a lot more gentle drug than normal chemotherapy so I don’t get sick very often,” Rosendahl said. “I can do pretty much everything, even though I am going through treatment.”

Rosendahl is also hopeful that her treatments and message can help others.

“Genetic therapy. A lot of people talk about it as if it was the future but it’s the present. It’s happening right now,” she said.

Levy says based on their data, they know that for patients with similar types of tumors with BRAF mutation, the anti-malaria drug is effective. They hope they can continue to expand the patients that can benefit from chloroquine.