It’s world first, says experts
An American woman given months to live after all treatments for her breast cancer failed has been completely cured by a breakthrough injection.
Judy Perkins, 52, had tumors the size of plums in her liver after cancer spread through her body, and had made a ‘bucket list’ of places to visit before she died. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in the lining of her ducts in 2003 and had a mastectomy, before the cancer returned a decade later. She went through seven types of chemotherapy and another experimental drug trial before running out of options.
In December 2015, she found out the cancer had spread to her liver, as well as lymph nodes in her chest wall and abdomen. The mother of two sons aged 18 and 20 said: “When you have metastatic cancer, you can be treated but not cured. Each treatment worked for less time than the treatment before, and it was exhausting. I couldn’t do anything which I had enjoyed before and I didn’t want it to continue. I wanted to get dying over with.”
Perkins has now been cancer free for two years, thanks to a revolutionary immunotherapy treatment administered by the National Institutes of Health, a new study reveals. It is a world first in using the treatment, called ‘adoptive cell transfer’ for incurable breast cancer, to successfully treat breast cancer and is hoped to be available for a wider group of patients within five years.
The story of the mother-of-two and an engineer from Florida, is published in prestigious scientific journal Nature Medicine. The approach used was presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncology this week.
Perkins said: “My condition deteriorated a lot towards the end and I had a tumor pressing on a nerve, which meant I spent my time trying not to move at all to avoid pain shooting down my arm. I had given up fighting.
“But after the treatment dissolved most of my tumors, I was able to go for a 40-mile hike. I went from being on morphine and a lot of painkillers to stopping taking them all in one go. It feels miraculous and I am beyond amazed that I have now been free of cancer for two years. Experts may call it extended remission but I call it a cure.”
About one in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives.
Traditional treatments including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation put many into remission.
These days, the survival rate for breast cancer patients in the industrialized world is quite remarkable: If the disease is diagnosed while it is still limited to the breast, there is a 99 percent survival rate over the next five years. This number drops in later stages of cancer, with just a 27 percent five-year survival rate for those whose breast cancer has spread far away parts of their bodies.
Traditionally, breast cancer patients may be inundated with chemotherapy or radiation and have surgery to remove their tumors. Still, more than 40,000 American women are expected to lose their battles with the disease this year alone, highlighting the need for improved treatments, especially those with the latest stage cancers.
The team at the National Institutes of Health have proven that, at least for one such patient, a better, more personalized treatment through immunotherapy is out there. However, just 15 percent of people respond so dramatically to immunotherapy, a type of treatment which harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Scientists led by the National Cancer Institute in the US, removed a tumour from her chest to determine her unique breast cancer ‘signature’, the genetic mutations which make every person’s cancer different.
Having discovered 62 mutations, they found she had white blood cells able to seek and destroy four of those mutations. To super-charge her immune system, they took a few hundred of these important immune T-cells and grew them into an army of 82 billion cells.
This took eight weeks, after which the white blood cells were injected back into her body to do their work. Dr Steven Rosenberg, a lead member of the team who carried out the treatment in December 2015, said: ‘This patient came to us in a desperate situation, with every treatment having failed.
“The breakthrough here is in finding an approach able to identify the T-cells which target genetic mutations and in being able to grow them to this number. But the important point is that this is using a patient’s own cells to attack their own cancer.”