MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Doctors at the National Institutes of Health have apparently eradicated cancer from the body of a patient who had untreatable advanced breast cancer. The case is raising hopes about a new way to harness the immune system to fight some of the most common cancers. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When Judy Perkins was first diagnosed and treated for breast cancer back in 2003, she thought she'd beaten the disease.
JUDY PERKINS: I thought I was done with it and 10 years later, it came back.
STEIN: Way worse than before. By the time she felt the new lump, the cancer had already spread all over the place.
PERKINS: Then I became a metastatic cancer patient. That was hard.
STEIN: Perkins went through round after round of chemo and every other experimental treatment she could find. The cancer kept spreading. Some of her tumors grew to the size of tennis balls.
PERKINS: I had sort of essentially run out of arrows in my quiver. While I would say I had some hope, I was also kind of, like, just ready to quit, too.
STEIN: Then she heard about another experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute.
STEVEN ROSENBERG: We're looking for a treatment, immunotherapy, that can be broadly used in patients with common cancers.
STEIN: That's Dr. Steven Rosenberg. He says the new treatments that use our immune systems haven't worked very well against the most common cancers, like breast cancer, so he's trying to change that using a part of the immune system called T cells.
ROSENBERG: These are the immune warriors.
STEIN: Rosenberg sifts through the T cells in patients' tumors and painstakingly analyzes the DNA in their cancer to find out which of these T cells are primed to attack their tumors.
ROSENBERG: The excitement here is that we're attacking the very mutations that are unique to that cancer in that patient's cancer and not in anybody else's cancer. So it's about as personalized a treatment as you can imagine.
STEIN: Rosenberg grew billions of those T cells in the lab for Perkins and infused them back into her body. It was grueling but it worked.
ROSENBERG: She is completely disease free. All of her detectable disease has disappeared. It's remarkable.
STEIN: More than two years later, Perkins is thrilled.
PERKINS: I'm one of the lucky ones that, you know, he hit the nail on the head. We got the right T cells in the right place at the right time, and they went in and ate up all my cancer and I'm cured. (Laughter) It's freaking unreal. It's amazing.
STEIN: Other researchers say the results are exciting.
JAMES HEATH: When I saw this paper, I thought, whoa. I mean, it's very impressive. It's very impressive.
STEIN: That's James Heath, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.
HEATH: One of the most exciting breakthroughs in biomedicine over the past decade has been activating the immune system against various cancers, but they have not been successful in breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer is basically a death sentence. And this shows that you can reverse it. It's a big deal.
STEIN: Rosenberg cautions that the approach doesn't work for everyone. It failed for two other breast cancer patients. But it does seem to work for about 15 percent of patients with some of the most common forms of cancer, such as colon cancer, liver cancer and cervical cancer.
ROSENBERG: Is it ready for prime time today? No. Can we do it in most patients today? No. But as we improve it, I think it is the most promising treatment currently now being explored for solving the problem of metastatic common cancers. We're working literally around the clock to try to improve the treatment.
STEIN: And eventually turn what is now a very difficult and expensive treatment into something that's practical and affordable for many cancer patients. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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