Curing the Big C: Are We Inching Closer to Beating Cancer?
The medical and research establishment has spent billions of dollars trying to cure cancer. And, they’ve come up largely empty handed — until now. Here’s what some of the brightest scientists are discovering about cancer.
A History Of Cancer Treatments
In 1891, William B. Coley, a bone cancer surgeon, injected his patients with streptococcal bacteria to see if it would help them fight off their cancer. He did this with a patient who had inoperable cancer. He thought the infection he produced would have the side effect of shrinking or eliminating the cancer.
He was successful.
It was the first time that the body’s immune system had been used in a purposeful and directed fashion to fight off cancer. Over the next 40 years, he headed up the Bone Tumor Service at Memorial Hospital in New York. he injected more than 1,000 cancer patients with his bacterial mix. These products were known as Coley’s Toxins. He, and a few other doctors, used them to great success — especially when it came to bone and soft-tissue cancers.
But, he was not successful with all patients. And, not all doctors were successful in replicating his results.
Despite his many positive outcomes, the toxins came under fire because many doctors were unable to replicate his results. At that time, there was little or no standardization in laboratories, and manufacturing processes weren’t as precise as they are today. This meant that doctors couldn’t always make the same formulation as Coley, and thus couldn’t always replicate his results.
Coley’s Toxins would gradually decline in popularity in favor of new technologies like radiation and chemotherapy, which used precise dosing and were systematic. They could be used by any doctor with a little training and practice.
Back then, paying for medical treatment was different, too. Patients may self-pay, or they could take advantage of new insurance policies issued by a growing insurance industry. Today, patients can use discount services like www.carefreedental.com but most policies won’t pay for a treatment like Coley’s.
Coley’s approach was actually used by many famous doctors around the turn of the century, like the Mayo Brothers (of the Mayo Clinic) as well as orthopedic surgeon Henry W. Meyerding. Meyerding had used Coley’s treatment with surgery to help patients beat bone cancer.
And, he achieved survival rates higher than with surgery alone. Coley spoke with many doctors who used the toxins and documented their results.
Each dose had to be adjusted for the patient, and the patient had to be monitored very carefully. Every dose could change, even for the same patient, depending to the reaction to the last dose. The goal was to induce a fever — something most medical professionals would frown upon today.
The fever was thought to help stimulate the body’s own immune system.
Today, after numerous failed experiments with radiation and chemotherapy, doctors are rediscovering the benefits of Coley’s Toxins. The “new” field of immunotherapy isn’t actually all that new. It started in the late 1800s with Dr. Coley.
Today, the “toxins” range from bacteria to viruses that have been “reprogrammed” to deliver a payload of cancer-fighting medicines or, in some cases, to simply wound the tumor in order to provoke the immune system to respond.
Every year in the U.S. roughly 5,000 people die from bone and soft-tissue sarcomas. These deaths happen despite innovations in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. To reduce these deaths, researchers have turned back to old treatments, like Coley’s Toxins, in an attempt to understand how the immune system functions and how it’s able to beat back cancer.
We’re still a long way off from having a complete understanding, but fortunately research is intensely focused on picking up where Coley left off, developing more advanced forms of immunotherapy.
One such treatment is based on using various mixes of bacteria to stimulate an immune response. When this happens, a powerful reaction occurs which, to the patient, feels almost like intense flu-like symptoms.
The patient gets sick, then recovers.
This process is the process of the immune system ramping up to deal with the infection. When it does, it finds it, and destroys it. But, it also destroys the cancer cells. Today’s immunotherapy based treatments use heat-killed bacteria, so there is no real danger to the patient.
But, it’s enough to fool the immune system into thinking that there’s a massive infection that needs to be treated.
Will immunotherapy be the new cancer treatment? It’s hard to say. A lot depends on whether therapies can pass muster with the FDA, and how much money comes pouring in to fund the research necessary to perfect treatments.
Lauren White is a 2nd year medical student who has an almost insatiable thirst for knowledge. When she can find the time she enjoys getting her knowledge down onto paper, and enjoys writing health related articles.