Cancer
Highly personalised immunotherapy has cured stage 4 breast cancer in a 49-year-old US woman.

A diagnosis of advanced breast cancer is always met with despondency. The prognosis of advanced breast cancer is very poor. So far there has not been any effective cure. The treatments developed so far have slightly improved the survival for most patients diagnosed with the cancer. But there is a new ray of hope now, due to a new line of highly personalized immunotherapy which has been found to be effective for treating advanced breast cancer.

Judy Perkins, an engineer from Florida, has been free of the disease for the past two years. When she was selected for the new therapy at the age of 49, her breast cancer had metastasized to other parts of the body and all routine rounds of chemotherapy failed to elicit any improvement in her health conditions. Her prognosis was poor and she was given around three years to live. But cancer free for two years now, Judy is in the pink of health and has recently completed a 40-mile hike.

Here are a few things you would want to know about this new line of immunotherapy to cure advanced breast cancer.

1) Advanced breast cancer/ metastatic breast cancer/ stage 4 breast cancer is the most advanced stage of breast cancer wherein it has spread to other parts of the body including bones, lungs, liver or brain. Metastatic breast cancer, until now, has no cure.

2) The results of the research conducted by the scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), USA was first published in Nature Medicine on June 4.

3) Cancer cells acquire genetic mutations as they grow and multiply. The new treatment primarily targets these genetic mutations. The mutations vary from patient to patient and it causes the tumour cells to produce some abnormal proteins. These proteins come to sit on the surface of the cancer cells. They are recognised by the body’s immune system and an attack is launched onto the cancer cells. However, the immune response is not adequate enough to kill all the cancer cells.

4) In the usual line of immunotherapy, Lymphocytes (a type of immune cell produced by the body) is collected from a patient, grown in a lab such that a large number of them are produced and deposited back inside the patient’s body. This form of immunotherapy is effective against cancers which have numerous mutations. Breast cancer, however, has very few mutations and thus can trigger only poor immune response. Hence this particular approach of immunotherapy has not been found to be effective against Breast Cancer.

5) In the new line of treatment, scientists launched themselves to find specific immune cells in the body which can recognise a cancer’s mutations. For this, DNA sequencing was done for both the cancer cells as well as the normal cells of the patient. The results were compared to identify the mutations in the cancer cells. The Lymphocytes from the patient were collected and were tested against all the surface proteins generated by the mutations. This was done to specifically identify which DNA mutation is capable of triggering an immune response and also to identify which type of lymphocytes are involved in the immune response. Thus, scientists were able to identify and isolate the types of lymphocytes which could recognise four of the mutations in Judy’s breast cancer.

6) These cells were multiplied in the lab and doctors injected 80 billion of these cells into Judy’s blood stream. Judy was also given the drug Pembrolizumb, which can boost up the activities of the immune cell.

7) Basically, a patient’s own lymphocytes are used for the treatment. These cells are not genetically engineered in any manner to combat the cancer cells.

8) When compared to the chemotherapies, the new treatment brings about very low levels of toxicity in patients.

9) This method has already been used to successfully treat metastatic cancers of colon, liver and cervix. However, Judy is the first person to have her metastatic breast cancer cured through this method.

10) More clinical trials are needed to assess how other cancer patients respond to the new treatment. Once the clinical trials are successful then this can become revolutionary in cancer treatment.