So far, the method has been used to combat melanoma and rare bile duct cancer. Now, it is being hailed as a way to beat ovarian cancer.
Researchers spoke at the American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting about the results of the small trial. They said the trial only helped about one-third of women, who were all told their chances for survival were small.
Arrica Wallace, 37, who lives in Manhattan, Kansas, was told she had stage III cervical cancer on July 1, 2011. She had gone to her doctor for regular Pap tests, but the disease wasn’t caught until then.
Wallace, a mother, had 32 rounds of chemotherapy, 25 days of radiation and brachytherapy, an internal radiation treatment prior to treatment for the trial.
"My doctors… were pretty aggressive because I was young and healthy enough to handle the treatment side effects," she says.
The cancer came back, and she says that doctors at M.D. Anderson in Houston told her they didn’t think she would live more than a year.
Christian Hinrichs, M.D., with the National Cancer Institute, called Wallace’s physicians and asked if she would participate in a clinical trial.
Hinrichs and colleagues were attempting to treat cancer by amplifying the body’s own immune response to the disease. In theory, it makes sense, but the doctors had a difficult time mastering it.
"Our T-cells keep us alive every day. They protect us from invaders. Invaders could be viruses, bacteria, parasites and we don't realize that they play also a big role in fighting off cancer cells," says Michel Sadelain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center For Cell Engineering at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was not involved in the research.
The HPV virus causes cervical cancer, which changes normal cells into tumor cells. Our T-cells can keep this under control most of the time, but when they cannot, cancer can take over. So patients need enough T-cells… and the right types… to beat cancer.
"All too often patients have a few of those T-cells but not enough to control the cancer," Sadelain says.
Hinrichs’ team cut out pieces of Wallace’s tumors and evaluated them to try to find T-cells that seemed to be primed to attack the HPV-mutated cancer cells.
"This report in particular shows that in patients with HPV-positive cervical carcinoma you can grow out the T-cells from surgical specimens, amplify them to generate an army of these T-cells, reinfuse them into the patients and sure enough, at least in some patients, these T-cells traffic through the bloodstream, find the cancer and destroy it," says Sadelain.
Out of nine patients treated with the therapy, three experienced major tumor shrinkage. For Wallace, the mother of two from Kansas, it’s made all the difference in her life — her tumors appear to have vanished.
Ready to hear about another innovation to fight women's cancers? Check out MobileOCT, a mobile colposcope that can detect cervical cancer.
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