Could Immunotherapy Lead the Way to Fighting Cancer?
3/25/2018, 6 a.m.
The family held a fund-raiser for Stanley to get on a plane to Chicago with his mother every two weeks, drive her to Zion and stay with her at the local Country Inn & Suites hotel for three days of outpatient chemotherapy. It felt like a replay of her treatment in Baltimore—worse, since the drugs were delivered in a hotel instead of in her bedroom, and the chemotherapy caused nerve damage that led to pain, tingling and numbness in Miss Vanessa’s arms and legs. And then, in May 2016, the Illinois doctor, too, said there was nothing more he could do for her. But at least he offered a sliver of hope: “Go get yourself on a clinical trial.” Weeks later, desperate, Miss Vanessa and Keara grew hopeful about a treatment involving mistletoe. They attended an information session at a Ramada extolling the plant extract’s anti-cancer properties. But when they learned that it would cost $5,000 to enroll, they walked out dejected.
Finally, Miss Vanessa’s husband stumbled onto a website for a clinical trial that seemed legit, something underway at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, just down the road from their home. This new treatment option involved immunotherapy, something markedly different from anything she had gone through. Rather than poisoning a tumor with chemotherapy or zapping it with radiation, immunotherapy kills cancer from within, recruiting the body’s own natural defense system to do the job. There are a number of different approaches, including personalized vaccines and specially engineered cells grown in a lab. (See “A Cancer Vaccine?” and “A DNA-Based Attack”)
The trial at Hopkins involved a type of immunotherapy known as a checkpoint inhibitor, which unlocks the power of the immune system’s best weapon: the T-cell. By the time Miss Vanessa made the call, other studies had already proved the value of checkpoint inhibitors, and the Food and Drug Administration had approved four of them for use in several cancers. The Hopkins researchers were looking at a new way of using one of those drugs, which didn’t work at all for most patients but worked spectacularly well for some. Their study was designed to confirm earlier findings that had seemed almost too good to be true.
“With the very first patient who responded to this drug, it’s been amazing,” says Dung Le, a straight-talking Hopkins oncologist with long dark hair and a buoyant energy. Most of her research had been in desperately ill patients; she wasn’t used to seeing her experimental treatments do much good. “When you see multiple responses, you get super-excited.”
When Miss Vanessa paid her first visit to Le in August 2016, the physician explained that not every patient with advanced colon cancer qualified for the trial. Investigators were looking for people with a certain genetic profile that they thought would benefit the most. It was a long shot—only about one person in eight would fit the bill. If she had the right DNA, she could join the trial. If she didn’t, she would have to look elsewhere.
About a week later, Miss Vanessa was in her kitchen, a cheery room lined with bright yellow cabinets, when her telephone rang. Caller ID indicated a Hopkins number. “I didn’t want anyone else to call you but me,” said the study’s principal investigator, Daniel Laheru. He had good news: her genes “matched up perfectly” with the criteria for the clinical trial. He told her to come in right away so they could get the blood work done, the paperwork signed and the treatment started. Miss Vanessa recalls, “I cried so hard I saw stars.”