Breast cancer treated successfully with immune therapy

Br Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

According to researchers from the US, early breast cancers can be successfully treated with a new form of immune therapy instead of traditional chemotherapy. The details of the treatment and the case is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Cancer cells. Image Credit: Jovan Vitanovski
Cancer cells. Image Credit: Jovan Vitanovski

In a landmark first case, Judy Perkins was diagnosed with breast cancer and given only three months to live. She was then treated with a pioneering therapy that involved injecting 90 billion immune cells that could target the cancer cells specifically. After two years, she still remains cancer-free.

The therapy that came from the US National Cancer Institute is still experimental but the team hopes that it sets stone to become a new form of effective therapy for all forms of cancers.

Judy, who lives in Florida had an aggressive form of advanced cancer where her major organs were getting involved and there was no scope for treatment with conventional methods such as a chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. Her cancer had spread to her liver and there was a secondary tumour there.

Several other small tumours were seen all over her body including once in her chest. After she was started on this immune therapy, her tumours began to shrink. Within three weeks she could feel them shrinking and it was making her feel better. Over few weeks her scan showed reducing and shrinking tumours until they were gone and she was told she could be completely cured of her cancer.

The team of researchers called this new immune therapy a “living drug” that is made up of the patient’s own cells. Dr Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute said that this was the most “personalized” form of medicine that there is.

To make this therapy the team first tested the tumour genetically and looked at the different properties of the cancer that would make it a target of the immune system. In Judy’s case they would four targets that could be attacked with the drug among the 62 genetic abnormalities that were detected. Now the immune system could already be fighting a losing battle against the cancer.

The soldiers or the white blood cells are now extracted and the ones that can specifically fight the cancer are identified and isolated. These are then grown in the labs in large quantities. The troops now being ready are 90 billion in numbers.

These are then injected back into the patient and she is given drugs that allow the immune system to go all out in attack mode. The cells go on to attack all the tumours and shrink them in size finally curing the 49 year old woman.

This is still in an experimental stage at present. Larger clinical trials would be necessary before it is a proven effective and safe therapy say the team. In fact several studies have shown that immunotherapy works well in some patients and tend to fail in many patients. Dr Rosenberg said if proven, it could be beneficial in almost any form of cancer.

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