Tricking the Immune system
In March of 2015, 60 minutes aired a segment about ongoing medical research at Duke University treating brain cancer with an injection of polio vaccine. The virus had been weakened to avoid causing a complication to the patient and the therapy is having remarkable success. Once injected into the cancer cells it activates an immune response within the body that kills the virus along with the cancer cells. This 21st century therapy has already saved lives that would not have survived if those patients had followed conventional treatments for their brain cancer. If you would like to read the transcript click here: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/polio-cancer-treatment-duke-university-60-minutes-scott-pelley/
What is old is new again
I was thoroughly impressed with the story and the way the researchers tricked the patient’s immune system into attacking the brain cancer. I thought “now here’s a shining example of 21st century medicine”. That feeling was tarnished when I recently found out that CBS failed to mention that this therapy has been used before. No, not in the 20th century, but way back in the 19th century! And ancient writings suggest that the Egyptian physician Imhotep may have used a crude version of this therapy too!
You may not have heard of Dr. William Bradley Coley, but back in 1890, he treated a seventeen-year-old girl, with a bone sarcoma of her hand. Although he amputated her arm at the elbow, the cancer metastasized and killed her within three months. Dr. Coley was so traumatized by the experience that he devoted his career to understanding cancer. He went back into the records to see if anyone had survived this same type of cancer. He came across the records of a patient by the name of Fred Stein who had a similar sarcoma but who contracted a post surgical Erysipelas infection (a type of streptococcus infection in the skin) and his tumor regressed. Dr. Coley wondered if Fred Stein was still alive after the seven years that elapsed. He was. Coley found him and learned he had a series of fevers during this healing crisis, which resulted in the disappearance of the cancer. Dr. Coley theorized that the bacterial infection stimulated the body to cure the cancer. It was now 1891, and Dr. Coley got his first chance to put his theory into practice. Dr. Coley injected the right amount of streptococcus bacteria in the tumors of the neck of a patient and stimulated the desired immune response. That patient lived for another 26 years before dying of a heart attack. Dr. Coley went on to further enhance his treatments by achieving repeated and controlled fevers by steadily increasing the dose of streptococcus. Soon his fame spanned continents, and his therapy was called “Coley’s Toxins”. Coley’s toxin was used worldwide and at the Mayo Clinic, and had some success treating other types of cancers.
Activation Immunotherapies vs. Suppression Immunotherapies
Dr. Coley’s therapy earned him the head of Bone Service at New York Memorial Hospital in 1915, which later became Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. However, his boss Dr. James Ewing was a proponent in the movement to use radiation and chemotherapy. Ewing was encouraged by a large financial contribution from a wealthy mining industrialist, James Douglas who was a strong advocate of Radium. Soon after, radiation and chemotherapy (suppression immunotherapies) won the support of the medical profession over individualized treatments such as “Coley’s Toxins” (activation immunotherapies). By 1952 Coley’s Toxin was no longer being produced and it was to be relegated as a historical footnote in the annals of medicine. By 1962 giving Coley’s Toxin was illegal in the U.S. Although Dr. Coley passed away in 1936, his daughter Helen Coley Nauts founded the Cancer Research Institute in 1953 and published 18 monographs of her father’s work. In it she showed that the 896 patients her father treated had a better success rate than many cancer therapies used today. In 2009, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. William K. Decker, and Dr. Amar Safdar wrote “This fortuitous combination of gram positive and gram negative bacteria (Coley’s Toxin) possessed a wide array of immunostimulatory properties that allowed Dr. Coley to achieve long term cure rates unrivaled by medical science in the 73 years since his death.” Additionally, the American Cancer Society who deemed Coley’s Toxins as quackery in 1965, eventually reversed itself in 1975 calling it a “legitimate cancer therapy”.
The war of ideas between activation immunotherapies and suppression immunotherapies is reflected beyond cancer. It can be seen in the use of pharmaceutical approaches vs. natural approaches with almost every condition that plagues mankind today outside of emergency medicine. This story is just the tip of the iceberg in the list of alternative ideas in the treatment of cancer and other health issues. Of course not every alternative idea works equally in all cases, but the research dollars to fully develop these ideas will never reach the dedicated people trying to do good. To paraphrase Ralph Moss PhD (noted author on cancer), “as long as there are patented drugs like Avastin which produced revenues of 6 billion dollars for Roche with a patient cost of 100,000 dollars per year, and an unpatented 5 lbs. of Coley’s Toxin that costs 3.00 dollars treating hundreds of patients, the rich and powerful drug companies will get the spotlight while more cost effective treatments will struggle to find their own acclaim”.