CHICAGO (AP) — Two years ago, Arrica Wallace was riddled with tumors from widely spread cervical cancer that the strongest chemotherapy and radiation could not beat back. Today, the Kansas mother shows no signs of the disease, and it was her own immune system that made it go away.
The experimental approach that helped her is one of the newest frontiers in the rapidly advancing field of cancer immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s natural ways of attacking tumors.
At a conference in Chicago on Monday, doctors also reported extending gains recently made with immune therapies against leukemia and the skin cancer melanoma to bladder, lung and other tumor types.
The cervical cancer experiment was the first time an immune therapy has worked so dramatically against a cancer caused by a virus — HPV. In a pilot study by the National Cancer Institute, the tumors of two out of nine women completely disappeared and those women remain cancer-free more than a year later. That’s far better than any other treatment has achieved in such cases.
Doctors are trying it now against throat, anal and other cancers caused by HPV, the human papillomavirus, and think it holds promise for cancers caused by other viruses, too.
Wallace enrolled in the study, and researchers removed one of her tumors, isolated special immune system cells that were attacking it, multiplied them in the lab and gave billions of them back to her in a one-time infusion. They also gave her drugs to boost her immune response — “like Gatorade for the cells,” she said.
“It’s been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans” showing no sign of cancer, Wallace said.
Doctors are trying the treatment on several dozen more women with advanced cervical cancer and it could someday be offered at many cancer centers the way bone marrow and stem cell transplants are now.
Immune therapy struggled for years with just occasional small gains, but “now we have cruise missiles” giving better kill rates against many tumor types, said Dr. Steven O’Day of the University of Southern California.