This is a remarkable story. And I couldn’t let an opportunity pass to share the incredible details with you. If only to offer some hope that an era beyond the “cut, poison, burn” approach to curing cancer may actually be on the horizon.
The subject of the story is a 52-year-old Florida woman named Judy Perkins. Doctors told her nearly three years ago that she had only three months to live before her end-stage breast cancer would kill her.
Despite having had her breast and all of her lymph nodes removed — and then going through both chemo and hormonal therapy — her cancer still spread to her chest and liver.
But today, she’s cancer free. Thanks to Dr. Steven Rosenberg at the National Institutes of Health — and a new treatment that used her own immune cells to fight the disease.
What a real breakthrough looks like
After studying Judy’s immune cells, scientists were able to identify the white blood cells with the unique ability to identify genetic mutations and fight cancer.
They identified the specific DNA mutations by examining and sequencing small pieces of tissue from the tumors. Once they pinpointed the immune cells that targeted these mutations, they harvested those cells, and grew an army of them in a lab.
Then they infused Judy with roughly 90 billion of them — alongside an experimental drug called pembrolizumab. This drug is a “biologic,” one of a new crop of treatments that, as I explained a couple months back, hasn’t proven very effective against advanced breast cancer in the past.
But with the addition of this new form of immunotherapy, we may actually be getting somewhere. Because within just ten days of treatment, Judy’s tumors began to shrink.
What’s more, the infused immune cells remained in her system for at least a year-and-a-half after she first received the treatment. Presumably keeping the cancer from coming back.
Effective against prostate and ovarian cancer
Dr. Rosenberg’s treatment is still very experimental. So he only accepts patients with especially aggressive and lethal cancers. Most of his patients, like Judy, have been told that they only have months to live.
But if this approach eventually makes its way to a larger patient population, we could actually have a real-life “miracle” on our hands. At the very least, it’s poised to change the way we treat cancer forever.
It could mean, for example, that each patient starts receiving a unique “drug” designed from the components of their own immune system. Which sounds crazy on the surface. But when you think about it, that’s exactly how your body fights off cancer in the first place.
The trouble is that breast cancers (as well as prostate and ovarian cancers) have relatively few genetic mutations. And that’s one reason why your immune system might have trouble hunting them down.
But this treatment has been so successful, that full clinical trials against ovarian and prostate cancers are in the planning stages now, too. And while this option won’t be available to the general public anytime soon, there is at least the possibility of study recruitment.
In the meantime, I think we all know who probably won’t be footing the bill for this research. And that’s Big Pharma.