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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Some encouraging news today from the National Cancer Institute. An experimental treatment decades in the making is showing promise against one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA reporting:

When you think you're onto something you tend to stick with it.

Dr. STEVEN ROSENBERG (National Cancer Institute): We've been working over the last two decades to develop ways to treat cancer that take advantage of the body's immune system.

PALCA: Steven Rosenberg has been plugging away at what he calls adoptive immunotherapy since the '80s. The reason for his persistence came in 1985. That year he published a paper that electrified the cancer world. He showed he could successfully treat patients with advanced kidney cancer or advanced melanoma using cells from the patient's own immune systems. It only worked about 15 percent of the time.

Dr. ROSENBERG: But what it did show is that it was more possible to use the body's immune system to cause cancer regression. It could happen.

PALCA: Rosenberg says he and his colleagues at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, have spent the last two decades tweaking their technique, trying to make it more effective.

One major problem with Rosenberg's original approach is only some people have cells in their immune systems that can react when they see their own cancer and do their thing to kill it. Rosenberg now thinks he's solved that problem.

Dr. ROSENBERG: We no longer need to find cells from each individual patient that can recognize the cancer. We can create them in the laboratory.

PALCA: The explanation for how they do that appears that in the journal Science.

Dr. ROSENBERG: We genetically alter the immune cells of a patient to convert them from normal, nonreactive cells into cells capable of recognizing and destroying the cancer.

PALCA: And this could be a significant step forward.

Dr. PHILIP GREENBERG (University of Washington): I think this approach makes an enormous amount of sense.

PALCA: Philip Greenberg has been working on similar approaches to fighting cancer. He's at the University of Washington in Seattle. He says Rosenberg's latest work is encouraging but not terribly surprising. Greenberg says animal studies showed the approach would work.

Dr. GREENBERG: And biologically it should work. I think the issue is really to solve the problems that are still inherent in this approach to make it really generally useful.

PALCA: It's hard to make genetically altered cells that will do what you want. So far the new technique has only been tried on patients with melanoma and only two of Rosenberg's 17 patients got better. And Rosenberg's approach requires a lot of laboratory work for each patient and that means a lot of cost.

Keith Knutson is also working on using the immune system to fight cancer. Knutson is at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He says Rosenberg is able to try his new technique because he's got the resources of the National Institutes of Health behind him.

Dr. KEITH KNUTSON (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota): You won't see this probably outside of the NIH advancing very rapidly because of the high cost associated with it.

PALCA: And it's always possible Rosenberg's approach simply won't work when it's tested in more patients. The world of cancer treatment is littered with promising experimental results that didn't pan out. Rosenberg is aware of that. He likes to tell an anecdote about a 58-year-old radiologist with advanced melanoma. Rosenberg met the doctor-turned-patient when he was testing an earlier version of his immunotherapy.

Dr. ROSENBERG: I sat down with this fellow to get an informed consent, and I asked him if he wanted to receive the treatment. Told him we had had some good results in patients we had treated before and was he interested in receiving it. He looked me straight in the eye and he said something I'll never forget. He said, absolutely, doc. I want to receive this new treatment while it's still working.

PALCA: And luckily for the radiologist, it still was when he got it.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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