Woman’s Cure Sparks Hope That Immunotherapy Might Take Out Pancreatic Cancer

There’s a chance—just the slightest chance—that patient Celine Ryan might occupy the same spot in the history of medicine as does Albert Alexander. Her response to an immunotherapy that targets colon and pancreatic cancer might go down in history as being as important as Alexander’s response to penicillin.

Alexander, a British constable, was the first to receive penicillin in 1941 after becoming infected by a rose’s thorn. He deteriorated rapidly before being treated with the then cutting edge medication. He made a dramatic comeback, but then relapsed and died because the medical team had run out of the drug.

Ryan is the first patient with a common cancer mutation who scientists have been able to treat successfully, the New York Times reports. That mutation has been the subject of so many cure attempts that it has been called “undruggable.” Well, maybe not anymore. The immunotherapy given Ryan targets a defect in a gene called KRAS, which every pancreatic patient has. Pancreatic cancer is deadly; only 10% of patients survive five years.  

The treatment, the focus of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, focuses on the nurturing of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, or TILs, white blood cells that swarm the tumor. Steven A. Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute, led the team that treated Ryan, and has been studying TILs for decades. The TILs for Ryan were found in some of her excised tumors. More than 100 billion TILs were deposited into her through an IV line.

Six of her seven tumors disappeared. The seventh was cut out. The Times reports that, “It had mutated and no longer carried the tissue-type marker that had enabled the T-cells to attack it.”

Still, scientists are pleased enough to label Ryan cancer free, if not cured. In another case, that mirrors the situation where Alexander in 1941 died because there had not been enough penicillin, another patient who had been given the same treatment as Ryan’s, died because doctors were not able to produce enough TILs.

Source: New York Times