Fortifying the immune system to fight off cancer

Bethesda, Md. (WUSA9) -- Cancer kills over 20 thousand people a day worldwide, according to the American Cancer Society. For years, researchers have looked for different ways to stop this foreign invader.

Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, PhD of the National Cancer Institute says now if you develop cancer, you have a 50 percent chance overall of being cured. He says, "We have 3 effective ways to treat cancer now, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy."

"The problem is half of the people that develop cancer are not cured by those modalities and we're in desperate need of new approaches to treatment," adds Dr Rosenberg.

A leading researcher and cancer surgeon, Dr. Rosenberg developed the first effective immunotherapies and gene therapies for patients with advanced cancer. Immunotherapy uses the body's own defense system to target and kill cancer cells. But it's reach was limited to cancers that are highly mutated, like melanoma.

Now he and his team of NIH scientists have developed a new immunotherapy method that's showing promise in attacking a wide range of cancers.

Dr. Rosenberg says, "In this new treatment, what we do is identify all the mutations that are present in a cancer. And develop methods to find out which individual mutations are recognized by the body's immune system, not all of them are.

With this new information, scientists can actually grow immune cells that can see the changes and destroy the cancer. This approach was applied for the first time in 46 year old Melinda Bachini. A Montana woman who had tumors that spread throughout her body.

Bachini tells Aja Goare of KTVQ-TV, "They found a specific T-cell that reacts to that specific mutation in my cancer and grew specifically that one for a month, they put billions of them back in me."

Dr. Rosenberg says, "Her tumors started in the liver and in fact those tend to be very difficult cancers to treat because they start in the epithelial linings of different organs."

In fact, over 80 percent of the deadliest cancers start in the epithelial tissues, including lung, prostate, pancreatic, and colon cancer.

So far, the patient is responding well to this emerging therapy. Her tumors are melting away. Dr. Rosenberg says they are working around the clock to improve on this treatment for more patients.

Bachini says, "The made a blueprint with me so that's where they've started, so I'm the first but I hope i'm the first of many."

This therapy is in very early stages so it is no where near ready for prime-time. But Dr. Rosenberg says the research provides a blueprint to attack specific mutations that are unique to a patient's individual cancer.

The National Cancer Institute is a component of the National Institutes of Health.


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