For first time, patient's own immune cells shrink cancer

  • Article by: Denise Grady
  • New York Times
  • May 8, 2014 - 9:34 PM

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 tumors began “melting away,” said Dr. Steven Rosenberg, senior author of the article and chief of the surgery branch at the cancer institute.

The woman is not cured: Her tumors 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 tumors — like those in the digestive tract, ovaries, pancreas, lungs and breasts — that cause more than 80 percent of the 580,000 U.S. cancer deaths every year.

Rosenberg’s patient, Melinda Bachini, a paramedic in Billings, Mont., who is the mother of six, 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 months.

Related techniques involving immune cells have brought lasting remissions for people with leukemia, a blood cancer, and the aggressive skin cancer melanoma. But until now researchers had not found a way to use the cells against the solid tumors that cause so many deaths.

Dr. Carl June, who directs similar research at the University of Pennsylvania, said the research addressed an important issue by showing that the treatment, known as adoptive cell therapy, could have an effect on commonly lethal solid tumors.

Dr. Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York said the report showed that carefully selected immune cells could be a powerful tool against bile-duct cancer. But he also said it was too soon to tell if the same approach would work for other patients.

Rosenberg acknowledged that there were limitations: The technique required highly sophisticated techniques in immunology and produced a treatment tailored to only one patient. He said his team was working to streamline the process.

Researchers have hoped for decades to find some unique marker on cancer cells, something not present on healthy cells, that could be used as a target, so that cells of the immune system could home in on it, kill the bad cells and leave the good ones alone. The goal has been elusive, but Rosenberg’s team has been able to help some patients with melanoma by treating them with immune cells — a type of T cell called a tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte — that were extracted from samples of the patients’ tumors.

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