Cancer research progress can be slow. We are always encouraging patients to enter clinical trials. The facts remain that less than 5% of all patients with cancer enter a clinical trial. Malignant mesothelioma is a rare disease making research even more important. Progress to a cure will only come if scientists are able to study the patients and the impact of the disease on them. When progress is made we need to celebrate it.
In the June edition of Nature Medicine there is an exciting story of a 52-year-old woman from Florida who had metastatic breast cancer and was told she had only a few months to live. Her breast cancer had metastasized throughout her chest and her liver. She had tumors the size of golf balls and was in pain from the tumors pressing on her spinal column, making any movement painful. She joined a clinical trial at the National Cancer Institute, under the direction of Dr. Stephen Rosenberg. The clinical trial protocol included taking tissue from her tumors and identifying the mutations. She had 62 genetic abnormalities in her tissue from her tumor. Of that only four were potential avenues to attack the tumor. The immune system uses white blood cells to fight off bacteria and foreign substances, but with cancer it is not enough. A “living drug” is made from the patient’s own cells. Scientists screen the white blood cells and extract the cells that can attack the cancer. They then grow these cells in huge quantities in the lab. Along with drugs that will take the brakes off the immune system, and the patient’s own treated cells are infused back into the patient. This procedure took place two and a half years ago. Almost immediately she started to feel better. Her scans showed her tumors shrinking and disappearing. Now she has been cancer free since the procedure. She is living her life and feeling well. She is the first known patient cured with metastatic breast cancer. In this clinical trial the response rate is 15%. That translates into 7 patients out of 45 survived. The clinical trial included patients with advanced colon cancer, liver cancer and cervical cancer.
Scientists do not know why this woman from Florida with metastatic breast cancer had such a positive, lifesaving response. To find out more much larger clinical trials need to be conducted.
Immunotherapy is a new exciting world of treatment for many cancers. The ways that immunotherapy works for different cancers are still being discovered. The basis of immunotherapy working is to use the person’s own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells, or to give your immune system additional man-made substances such as proteins.
For malignant mesothelioma patients this is a positive, exciting report. Once again, every person’s tumors are different, and scientists are finding the keys to unlocking what will work for certain tumor types. A response rate of 15% is a place to start working on why some patients and some tumors respond and some do not.
Joining a clinical trial not only saved this women’s life, it cured her cancer. No one can promise that anyone else will be cured but she has been! Investigate clinical trials – you never know!