For those women who are fighting against breast cancer, here’s a fantastic story that should raise their spirits: a 49-year-old woman whose breast cancer had metastasized through her body so far that she was planning her own death has been completely cured by treatment that used her own immune cells to destroy the cancer cells.
Judy Perkins, an engineer from Florida, has now been cancer-free for two years after the treatment, which worked in these steps, as reported in the journal Nature Medicine:
- Doctors at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Maryland removed small pieces of tissue from Perkins’s tumors and examined the DNA to find mutations specific to her cancer.
- The doctors extracted immune cells called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILS) from the tumor biopsies. TILS come from the body’s immune system, and normally are too weak to kill the tumor because they are too weak or too sparse.
- Researchers took the TILS and grew billions more like them, then ascertained which cells would eliminate the woman’s cancer cells by recognizing their abnormal proteins.
- Perkins was injected with 80 billion of the immune cells and also pembrolizumab, which supports the immune system.
Perkins stated, “It feels miraculous and I am beyond amazed that I have now been free of cancer for two years. I had resigned my job and was planning on dying. I had a bucket-list of things I needed to do before the end, like going to the Grand Canyon. Now, I have gone back to normal everyday life.”
Perkins recalled that before the treatment, “My condition deteriorated a lot towards the end, and I had a tumor pressing on a nerve, which meant I spent my time trying not to move at all to avoid pain shooting down my arm. I had given up fighting. After the treatment dissolved most of my tumors, I was able to go for a 40-mile hike.”
The journal in Nature Medicine was clear that the procedure was designed for the specific case of Perkins, writing, “This highly personalized therapy identified reactive T-cells against multiple HLA-class-I and HLA-class-II restricted neoantigens that were presented by the autologous tumor, enriching a potentially narrower repertoire of mutant-reactive T cells than bulk T-cells alone.”
Laszlo Radvanyi, scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, was amazed, saying it was “an unprecedented response in such advanced breast cancer. We are now at the cusp of a major revolution in finally realizing the elusive goal of being able to target the plethora of mutations in cancer through immunotherapy.”
Simon Vincent, director of research at Breast Cancer Now, cautioned:
This is a remarkable and extremely promising result, but we need to see this effect repeated in other patients before giving hope of a new immunotherapy for incurable metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer remains incurable, and if we are to finally stop women dying we urgently need to find new ways to target and stop the spread of the disease. We are thrilled by this early finding, but we must remember that this type of immunotherapy remains an experimental approach that has a long way to go before it might be routinely available to patients.