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1 Woman's Cancer Battle & Promise of New Treatment

Melinda Bachini received experimental therapy that used her own immune cells to shrink her tumors

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To treat Bachini, Rosenberg's team started by analyzing T-cells in tumor samples from her lungs. It turned out that some of those T-cells reacted to a specific mutated protein in her cancer.

The researchers then produced an army of those T-cells in the lab, and infused Bachini with over 42 billion of them -- about one-quarter of which were reactive to the mutation. That was enough to halt the growth of her liver and lung tumors for a year, when the disease began to progress again.

So Bachini got a second treatment, but this time nearly all of the T-cells were reactive to the mutation. That treatment, which was done over six months ago, quickly started shrinking the lung and liver tumors.

And they are still regressing, Rosenberg said.

According to Bachini, the chronic cough that once plagued her disappeared about a week after the treatment. "Now I'm able to walk two miles a day with my dog," she said. "And I skied a lot this winter."

Bachini does have nerve damage in her hands and feet -- a lingering side effect of her chemotherapy.

And there is still a long road ahead, for both Bachini and this therapy. Even if future studies find the approach effective in various cancers, it will not be like giving a drug.

The specific gene mutations that trigger a T-cell reaction will vary from person to person -- even when they have the same cancer, Rosenberg explained. The process of creating individualized T-cell therapies for every patient is no small task.

Yet that complexity is also the "beauty" of immunotherapy, Rosenberg said. With cancer, he noted, the "holy grail" is to have treatments that are fine-tuned to kill a patient's cancer cells but leave healthy ones alone.

"This will be challenging to implement in the real world," Rosenberg said. "But it's doable."

In fact, he and O'Day said, the ultimate hope is that immunotherapy will replace chemotherapy for many cancers.

As for Bachini, she hopes her experience ends up helping others. "There's nothing I want more than for this to be successful for other people," she said.

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