From three months to live to no sign of cancer: One woman’s experience increases optimism for immunotherapy

BCAC is thrilled a clinical trial involving American engineer Judy Perkins has led to her being declared free of breast cancer with what specialists are calling an extended remission. This wonderful news has come two years after she was told she had only three months to live. 

The trial of the experimental therapy was carried out by the US National Cancer Institute. BCAC are aware there is still much to learn before scientists can turn this experimental therapy into a treatment.

This work is complex but it is wonderful that it has been perfected for this one breast cancer patient,  and there is hope that ongoing research will see it eventually being extended to others -  potentially those whose tumours appear packed with immune cells. 

This form of immune therapy, which involves isolating immune cells within the tumour, differs from other forms of immune therapy we are familiar with. These other forms include injectable antibody treatments allowing an immune response to be released, and CAR-T therapy where a person’s immune response is genetically engineered in the laboratory which has worked best for lethal forms of leukaemia.

Immunotherapy is a treatment that shows enormous promise and we will continue to monitor developments in this area with great interest.

Read the BBC article about Judy Perkins' story and the research that changed her life:

'Remarkable' therapy beats terminal breast cancer

By James Gallagher, Health and science correspondent, BBC News, 4 June 2018

The life of a woman with terminal breast cancer has been saved by a pioneering new therapy, say US researchers.
 
It involved pumping 90 billion cancer-killing immune cells into her body.
 
Judy Perkins had been given three months to live, but two years later there is no sign of cancer in her body.
 
The team at the US National Cancer Institute says the therapy is still experimental, but could transform the treatment of all cancer.
 
Judy - who lives in Florida - had spreading, advanced breast cancer that could not be treated with conventional therapy.
 
She had tennis ball-sized tumours in her liver and secondary cancers throughout her body.
 
She told the BBC: "About a week after [the therapy] I started to feel something, I had a tumour in my chest that I could feel shrinking.
 
"It took another week or two for it to completely go away."
 
She remembers her first scan after the procedure when the medical staff "were all very excited and jumping around".
 
It was then she was told that she was likely to be cured.
 
Now she's filling her life with backpacking and sea kayaking and has just taken five weeks circumnavigating Florida.
 
Living therapy
The technology is a "living drug" made from a patient's own cells at one of the world's leading centres of cancer research.
 
Dr Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute, told the BBC: "We're talking about the most highly personalised treatment imaginable."
 
It remains experimental and still requires considerably more testing before it can be used more widely, but this is how it works: it starts by getting to know the enemy.
 
A patient's tumour is genetically analysed to identify the rare changes that might make the cancer visible to the immune system.
 
Out of the 62 genetic abnormalities in this patient, only four were potential lines of attack.
 
Next researchers go hunting. A patient's immune system will already be attacking the tumour, it's just losing the fight between white blood cells and cancer.
 
The scientists screen the patient's white blood cells and extract those capable of attacking the cancer.
 
These are then grown in huge quantities in the laboratory.
 
Around 90 billion were injected back into the 49-year-old patient, alongside drugs to take the brakes off the immune system.
 
Dr Rosenberg told me: "The very mutations that cause cancer turn out to be its Achilles heel."
 
'Paradigm shift'
These are the results from a single patient and much larger trials will be needed to confirm the findings.
 
The challenge so far in cancer immunotherapy is it tends to work spectacularly for some patients, but the majority do not benefit.
 
Dr Rosenberg added: "This is highly experimental and we're just learning how to do this, but potentially it is applicable to any cancer.
 
"A lot of works needs to be done, but the potential exists for a paradigm shift in cancer therapy - a unique drug for every cancer patient - it is very different to any other kind of treatment."
 
The details were published in journal Nature Medicine.
 
Commenting on the findings, Dr Simon Vincent, director of research at Breast Cancer Now, said the research was "world class".
 
He told the BBC: "We think this is a remarkable result.
 
"It's the first opportunity to see this sort of immunotherapy in the most common sort of breast cancer at the moment it has only been tested in one patient,
 
"There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done, but potentially it could open up a whole new area of therapy for a large number of people."
 
14 June 2018
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