In a breakthrough, doctors have accomplished the total elimination of breast cancer in a patient with advanced cancer that was considered untreatable, according to NPR. The National Institutes of Health doctors used a new technique, utilizing the patients’s own immune system to combat the cancer.
A paper published Monday, in the journal Nature Medicine, detailed the method.
“We’re looking for a treatment — an immunotherapy — that can be broadly used in patients with common cancers,” according to National Cancer Institute oncologist Dr. Steve Rosenberg, who crafted the technique.
The team first analyze a DNA sample from each patient, looking for mutations unique to their cancer. The doctors then look for immune cells called T cells, in the tissue of the tumor itself. These cells seek out the specific mutations.
“The excitement here is that we’re attacking the very mutations that are unique to that cancer — in that patient’s cancer and not in anybody else’s cancer. So it’s about as personalized a treatment as you can imagine,” according to Rosenberg.
However, the team warns that such an approach will not work for all patients. In two others, it did not succeed. To really understand the potential of the new approach, more patients will need to try it, with the results tracked for much longer, according to the scientists.
According to Rosenberg:
“Is it ready for prime time today? No. Can we do it in most patients today? No.”
Out of 45 patients, the approach helped seven, totaling a response rate of 15 percent. This group included patients with a range of other types of cancer, including colon, liver, and cervical cancers.
“I think it’s the most promising treatment now being explored for solving the problem of the treatment of metastatic, common cancers,” says Rosenberg.
For Judy Perkins, 52, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, the treatment was life-changing. When the cancer returned 10 years after she thought it was eliminated, doctors found it had already spread substantially.
“I became a metastatic cancer patient. That was hard,” she said.
Her tumors kept growing rapidly, in spite of many rounds of chemotherapy and other experimental treatments.
“I had sort of essentially run out of arrows in my quiver. While I would say I had some hope, I was also kind of like ready to quit, too.”
Finally, she heard about Rosenberg’s experimental treatment at the NIH. The team grew T cells specifically for Perkins in their lab, and administered drugs to help the cells take effect – including one that caused intense, flu-like symptoms.
Two years later, however, she is free of cancer.
“All of her detectable disease has disappeared. It’s remarkable,” according to Rosenberg.
The next step for the team will be to make the treatment more affordable, easier, and quicker.
Laszlo Radvanyi, director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, wrote an article to go alongside the paper. He says progress such as the new immunotherapy indicates we are “at the cusp of a major revolution in finally realizing the elusive goal of being able to target the plethora of mutations in cancer through immunotherapy.”