A year ago, Sergei German got terrible news: He had cancer, and it was incurable. Today, he is cancer-free. The tumors throughout his body literally melted away after treatment with an experimental vaccine.
It’s called immunotherapy: harnessing the immune system to attack cancer. The idea has been around for a long time, but now — for the first time — researchers are making it work.
“There used to be believers and non-believers,” says Joshua Brody, MD, a cancer researcher and German’s doctor. “There is only one school of thought now. We have clear evidence that the immune system can get rid of cancer.”
Vaccines work by teaching the immune system what to attack. They’re like the piece of the convict’s clothing that the sheriff gives to the bloodhounds to sniff. The immune system takes the scent, and goes off to get the bad guys.
Of course, cancer is different from the usual bad guys that vaccines target. Viruses like polio and the flu are outside invaders, but a tumor is made of our own cells.
German has lymphoma, which is one of the cancers that seems to be most responsive to immunotherapy. Dr. Brody is the director of the Lymphoma Immunotherapy Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The trick for Brody and other researchers working on immunotherapy is to find a way to teach the immune system how to distinguish a cancer cell from a healthy
Brody’s idea is to allow the immune system itself to figure it out. “You know, the immune system has been evolving for millions and millions of years to be able to distinguish one cell from another cell,” he says. “The immune system can make distinctions that we can’t.”
He begins by identifying a tumor near the skin, and then injects agents into the tumor that stimulate the immune system to recognize the tumor cells. Then the immune cells take that knowledge and find and destroy tumors anywhere in the body.
“The concept here is to be able to treat one tumor and then watch tumors in other places melting away,” says Brody. That’s what happened to German.
“It seems like it’s a movie, almost,” says German. He would go in on Fridays for the injection. By the weekend he was running a fever, then by Sunday morning he’d feel well again.
In addition to lymphoma, immunotherapy has shown success against melanoma and prostate cancer. So far, the only So far, the only FDA-approved cancer vaccine targets prostate cancer. But Brody predicts immunotherapy will one day be a front-line treatment for these, and perhaps many other cancers.