For the first time in history, doctors have cured a woman of advanced metastatic breast cancer by injecting her with billions of her own immune cells.
Although this is so far the first and only case of successful immunotherapy against late-stage cancer, doctors are hopeful that their pioneering treatment could potentially bring hope to thousands of cancer patients who have continuously resisted the effects of chemotherapy and other conventional cancer cures.
Cancer-Free For 2 Years
Judy Perkins, a retired engineer of Port St. Lucie, has been cancer-free for two years since her treatment began. Perkins was 49 years old when they found that the tumor in her right breast had spread to the rest of her body.
At the time, her doctors at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Maryland said she only has her three years to live as the routine chemotherapy and hormone treatments were not working. This is why she agreed to participate in an experimental treatment that doctors believe would create an entirely new approach to cancer treatment.
The result of the previously untested therapy has changed her life.
"I had resigned my job and was planning on dying," Perkins says. "I had a bucket-list of things I needed to do before the end, like going to the Grand Canyon. Now, I have gone back to normal everyday life."
Modified Adoptive Cell Transfer For Cancer
The treatment is a modified form of adoptive cell transfer. It involves extracting immune cells from the patient's body, multiplying them, and injecting them back into the patient in much larger numbers.
After taking a small piece of tissue from her tumor, Perkins's doctors studied which mutations appeared in her. They found 197 mutations, all in all, 196 of which are unique to Perkins herself.
Next, they took immune cells known as tumor infiltrating lymphocytes or T cells from the tumor tissue. These T cells have invaded cancer in an attempt to kill it but failed because they were either too few or too weak.
The doctors multiplied these T cells in the laboratory, generating as many as 80 billion new cells that were then injected back into Perkins's system. The outcome was nothing short of miraculous.
Perkins was then declared cancer-free 42 weeks after the treatment. She remains so up to now.
New Hope for Cancer Patients
Alongside the therapy, Perkins also received doses of pembrolizumab, a standard immune system drug to help cancer patients fight off cancerous cells. On its own, the drug has rendered unremarkable results.
The results of the new therapy could radically change the way doctors study cancer and options for treatment.
Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, says the key to cancer regressions as dramatic as Perkins' could be the focus on mutations specific to the patient.
"We need a new paradigm for cancer therapy," he says. "Highly personalized treatments are likely to be necessary if we are to make progress in treating common cancers."
Rosenberg also believes there is early evidence to show that immunotherapy may also be effective for liver and colon cancer.
Currently, the U.S. National Cancer Institute is preparing to conduct full-scale clinical trials to explore the effectiveness of immunotherapy as a viable cancer cure.