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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"But [immunotherapy] has had much less success against the common epithelial cancers," O'Day said. Epithelial tumors account for over 80 percent of all cancers, include Bachini's type of cancer, and such major ones as colon, lung, breast and prostate cancers.
"Those cancers stay hidden from the immune system much better," O'Day explained.
That's why the success in Bachini's case is a "breakthrough," he said.
"This is a very exciting proof-of-principle that we can use the tools working so well now in melanoma, and apply them to other cancers," O'Day said.
However, he stressed, "we've still got a long way to go."
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.