A breakthrough trial at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda has offered evidence that immunotherapy could work towards curing cervical cancer.
After being told that she probably had less than a year to live, Sue Scott refused to give in to her bout with cervical cancer. However, multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery had all failed. She had few options left.
Cervical cancer can be caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). As one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, HPV affects 79 million Americans every year.
After some deliberation, Scott was selected to take part in an experimental trial supervised by Dr. Christian Hinrichs. In this trial, doctors aimed to fortify patients’ immune systems with T-cells that would specifically attack cancerous cells.
Before the trial, doctors had detected seven tumors growing in numerous locations in Scott’s body. Within just a few months of the trial therapy, her tumors had disappeared and Susan Scott was declared cancer free.
This trial was a breakthrough. It is the first evidence that immunotherapy, which has also been successful in treating melanoma and blood cancers, could also combat cervical cancer.
How Does Immunotherapy Fight Cancer?
Although radiation and chemotherapy have shown success, up until now, doctors have been unable to kill off cancerous cells once they have spread. Although immunotherapy was first put forward as a cancer treatment in 1893, it is only in the last few years that it has been used successfully.
Immunotherapy is different to other cancer treatments. Instead of destroying cells, it aims to use the patient’s immune system cells to attack tumors.
Scott’s trial used killer T-cells or lymphocytes that had been trying to attack tumors. The cells were extracted from the body and taken to the lab.
Here, scientists grew more of them before placing huge numbers of these cells back into the patient’s body. T-cells are the white blood cells that target two specific HPV proteins and kill any tumors caused by the virus. In other words, they destroy the cancerous cells as if it were a viral infection.
The Outcome and Discoveries of the Trial
Unfortunately, immunotherapy does not have a 100% success rate. In the trial at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, Susan Scott was one of just two out of sixteen patients whose cancer was cured.
However, the researchers further investigated Scott’s case which led to a new discovery. In Scott’s trial, the T-cells targeted a specific tumor antigen protein. Noticing this, Dr. Hinrichs was able to successfully capture the gene sequence that let this occur.
Potentially, this specific gene sequence could be injected into any patient’s cells and successfully target the tumor antigen protein in the same way.
Immunotherapy and Future Possibilities
Sadly, cervical cancer affects some 12,000 women in the United States each year and kills more than 4,000. However, this breakthrough could mean that more patients can win their battle with cancer.
The trial not only showed how immunotherapy can be applied to fight cervical cancer but potentially more types of cancer than originally thought.
Hinrichs’ work is also absolutely critical in dispelling the mystery of why immunotherapy works for some people but not for others.
The outcome of this experimental trial was not only the safeguarding of two lives but also the discovery of a way for many others to benefit from immunotherapy without their chances being limited by their DNA.
As these results have yet to be published in a scientific journal, it is too early to determine a success rate or when the experimental treatment may be incorporated into mainstream medicine.