In the ongoing battle against cancer, specialists have just taken another very important step toward harnessing the full power of the human immune system.
Science journal just published an article which describes the treatment of Melinda Bachini, a 43 year old who had been diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer. Despite previous attempts utilizing aggressive forms of therapy (chemotherapy), her cancer had metastasized from the bile duct to her lungs and liver.
A team of researchers from the National Cancer Institute were able to obtain the genome sequence for her disease and pinpoint the immune response cells that would attack a specific mutation within the cancerous cells. They extracted a sampling of these immune cells and duplicated them in the lab. This significantly larger grouping of cells were then reintroduced into Bachini’s bloodstream.
As Dr. Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the cancer institute described it, the patient’s tumors just started “melting away” after the cells had been reintroduced.
Immunotherapy Is Not a Cure
Melinda isn’t out of the woods just yet. Her tumors may have shrunk significantly, but they are still present. We have also learned over the years that the results of an isolated case may not provide an accurate prediction of how well this new treatment (we like to call it immunotherapy) will work for a large population of patients.
On a positive note, the evidence does suggest that this therapy could be applied to a diverse range of common cancers, including:
- Lung cancer
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
These types of tumors are responsible for more than 80 percent of the 580,000 people to succumb to cancer on an annual basis in the US.
Melinda Bachini, the mother of six children, recently had her 45 birthday. She has told reporters that she doubts if she would have even still been living at all if it weren’t for this immunotherapy treatment; Dr. Rosenberg happens to agree. He believes that Bachini’s life expectancy was only a matter of months when she got her first round of immunotherapy.
Previous attempts using related techniques have produced notable states of remission for patients with:
- Various blood cancers such as leukemia
- A deadly form of skin cancer known as melanoma
- Children battling certain forms of pediatric cancer
However, this latest attempt was the first time that researchers had been able to use these immune cells directly against solid tumors.
Experts Ponder Over the Larger Applications for Immunotherapy
Other experts warn that Bachini’s results could be misleading. The approach, also known as adoptive cell therapy, shows promise, but we still need to test it’s effects with a larger pool of patients. Dr. Rosenberg has readily acknowledged the limitations of this early research. Unfortunately, this type of treatment is only that effective because it has to be so personalized at this time.
Rosenberg’s team had to put in extremely long hours using sophisticated immunological techniques in order to produce a treatment tailored specifically to Bachini’s own tumor. Dr. Rosenberg added, “Potentially, if we could reduce the complexity, it’s something that could get out into common usage eventually.”
Seeking the Holy Grail of Immunology
For years, immunologists have sought this “holy grail” among cancerous cells– a unique marker that didn’t exist among healthy cells. This marker would provide the perfect target so that immune response cells could be locked in on it, while leaving healthy cells unscathed.
This unique marker has proven quite elusive, but Rosenberg and his colleagues have seen some success treating patients with melanoma using immune cells.
For now, Dr. Rosenberg’s team will continue to monitor Bachini’s health. If recurrence seems imminent, they theorize that they’ll be able to treat her again using immunotherapy. While this team are not yet ready to conduct larger studies, we do feel that there seems to be a lot of promise in this particular form of cancer therapy.