Doctors have taken an important step toward a long-sought goal: harnessing a person’s own immune system to fight cancer.
An article published Thursday in the journal Science describes the treatment of a 43-year-old woman with an advanced and deadly type of cancer that had spread from her bile duct to her liver and lungs, despite chemotherapy.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute sequenced the genome of her cancer and identified cells from her immune system that attacked a specific mutation in the malignant cells. Then they grew those immune cells in the laboratory and infused billions of them back into her bloodstream.
The tumours began “melting away,” said Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, senior author of the article and chief of the surgery branch at the cancer institute.
The woman is not cured: Her tumours are shrinking, but not gone. And an experiment on one patient cannot determine whether a new treatment works. But the report is noteworthy because it describes an approach that may also be applied to common tumours — like those in the digestive tract, ovaries, pancreas, lungs and breasts — that cause more than 80% of the 580,000 cancer deaths in the United States every year.
Rosenberg’s patient, Melinda Bachini, now 45, a paramedic in Billings, Montana, who is the mother of six children, said that without the cell treatment, “Honest, I don’t know that I would be here.”
Rosenberg agreed, saying that in April 2012, when Bachini received the first immune treatment, her life expectancy was probably a matter of months.