The study and use of immunotherapy is not just starting today, it started back in 1890 when a young surgeon, William Coley, experimented with using strains of bacteria to train the immune system to fight cancer cells by itself – over 100 years ago, NPR writes.
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Immunotherapy is a drug therapy which equips and trains the body’s immune system to resist and fight infections by itself; in the case of cancers, the drugs do not kill the cancer cells, but boosts the immune system to do the job instead.
It all started in 1890 when a 17-year old lady known as Elizabeth Dashiell, or Bessie, called on William Coley for treatment. Bessie had what looked like a minor hand injury that looked as if she bumped it into some. It was very painful and no doctor could really offer any real help or diagnose the problem.
Thinking she must have an infection, Coley took a biopsy and found Bessie had sarcoma, a malignant advanced form of cancer.
There was not chemotherapy or radiation back in those days, so Coley amputated the hand to prevent the infection from spread; but it still did – to Bessie’s lungs, liver, and all over her body. Coley was by her bed when Bessie died on January 23, 1891.
Puzzled with her death and the mysterious disease that killed Bessie, Coley started researching into old records at New York Hospital – for anything that would offer him insights into the disease and how to treat it. Then he came across the medical records of Fred Stein, a German immigrant who had been at the hospital 8 years earlier.
Stein had a serious neck tumor which doctors removed but it kept coming back. Doctors expected him to die anytime but Stein would not die; he ultimately contracted a terrible skin infection caused by strep bacteria. He got terribly ill but within days got well, his tumor disappeared and Stein was discharged in good health.
Coley could not understand this and decided to track down Stein who fortunately was still alive at the German immigrant community of the Lower East Side of Manhattan back in those days. Coley figured the strep bacterial infection could have reversed the cancer and thought about intentionally injecting his patients with bacteria to enable them fight cancers on their own.
And this is exactly what Coley did with his next cancer patient, an Italian immigrant named Zola. Zola had sarcoma like Bessie, in his throat, and Coley made cuts in his skin to rub in strep bacteria which ultimately triggered a violent infection and illness that could have killed the man.
But the patient did not die, but his fist-sized tumor began to disintegrate within 24 hours and it liquefied before melting out totally. Zola was healed of cancer. Coley called his bacteria “Coley’s toxins.”
Coley died in 1936, and his daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, was scrutinizing his papers in order to research for his biography when she found over 1,000 files of patients her father had successfully treated with Coley’s toxins.
When she could not get anyone to analyze how her father treated cancerous tumors with his “toxins,” she obtained a small grant and in 1953 started the Cancer Research Institute, which researched the immune system and how it interacted with cancer – leading to the concept of immunology and immunotherapy.
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Today, the medical community better understands how to boost the body’s immunity to fight all types of cancers – thanks to the efforts and skills of William Coley, a medical journey that started over 100 years ago.