Sharon Belvin’s nightmare with cancer began in 2004 when she was just 22. Eventually, after months of fruitless treatments for lung ailments like bronchitis, she was diagnosed with melanoma – a very serious skin cancer.
An immunologist named Jim Allison, now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, had figured out that if the immune system was tweaked just right, it could do a better job of killing the cancer than the usual treatments.
“It’s a new modality for treating cancer,” Dr. Samuel Broder, a former director of the National Cancer Institute, says now of Allison’s pioneering research.
“It used to be there were three basic treatment options for cancer – surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – or some combination of those three. It’s fair to say there’s now a fourth option.”
Allison’s long search for this new kind of treatment – one that has since become a lifesaver for some cancer patients – began around a decade before Belvin got sick, when Allison was running a lab at the University of California, Berkeley. T cells do recognize cancer cells, but not in a way that can eliminate the disease.
Allison had been studying T cells for years, and thought that by tinkering with one key molecule on the outside of these cells, he could enhance their response to cancer, enough to eradicate the illness. The T cells seemed to be doing just what Allison had hoped they would do – shrink the tumors and kill the cancer.
“We weren’t trying to kill the cancer cells. We were letting the T cells kill the cancer cells.”
A clinical trial to study the drug – now called ipilimumab, or Ippy for short – was set up at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. At Belvin’s follow-up appointment a year later, Wolchok delivered news that was hard for her to take in: “Sharon, you no longer have cancer.”Jim Allison has become a bit of a celebrity in the cancer research world. Each case is different, and using a patient’s own cells to destroy tumors won’t work in every patient or in every type of cancer.
Still, the approach offers promise to some people that other therapies can’t, and has transformed the way doctors think about cancer treatment.