1 Woman's Cancer Battle & Promise of New Treatment
Melinda Bachini received experimental therapy that used her own immune cells to shrink her tumors
By Amy Norton
THURSDAY, May 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Just over two years ago, Melinda Bachini decided she was done with chemotherapy to treat her cholangiocarcinoma -- a rare cancer of the bile duct that runs from the liver to the intestines.
At that point, she'd gone through three rounds of chemo, with little to show for it except side effects. The cancer was in her liver and lungs, and the outlook was grim.
"I knew if I was going to beat this, it would have to be with an experimental therapy," said Bachini, a mother of six who was diagnosed at the age of 41 -- on her son's 14th birthday.
So Bachini did what most of us do when we want information: She went online, where she "stumbled upon" a clinical trial at the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI). It was testing an experimental therapy against advanced cases of gastrointestinal cancers; the idea was to use people's own immune system T-cells to fight their genetically unique cancer.
"It made sense," Bachini said. "It's your own body doing what it's supposed to do. I told my husband this was it."
In March 2012, Bachini was accepted into the trial and soon began the treatment, known as adoptive cell therapy. Now her case is being reported online May 8 in the journal Science -- in what experts call a "blueprint" that could be translated into therapies for the most common cancers out there.
"It's still highly experimental," cautioned Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the senior NCI researcher on the study.
But, he said, Bachini's case "opens the door" to developing personalized treatments that harness the immune system to target specific mutations in individual cancers.
There's nothing new about immunotherapy -- the general term for any treatment that boosts the immune system's cancer-fighting capacity.
But in the past several years, new techniques have allowed "huge progress" against melanoma and kidney cancers, said Dr. Steven O'Day, an immunotherapy expert who was not involved in the study.
Melanoma and kidney cancer are, by nature, relatively susceptible to the immune system, explained O'Day, who sits on the cancer communications committee of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
"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."