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Show 1151: What Was the First Immunotherapy for Cancer?

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Dr. William Coley developed the first immunotherapy for cancer more than 100 years ago. How did this bacterial toxin work to overpower tumors?

Back at the turn of the 20th century, the only treatment for most types of cancer was surgery. When a young New York doctor lost his first patient to sarcoma despite treating her by the book, he began to look for other approaches. What he came up with was actually the first immunotherapy for cancer.

Dr. William Coley discovered that some cancer patients with strep infections developed high fevers and subsequently had their tumors regress. He worked out a way to induce fever with a bacterial toxin, dubbed Coley’s toxin. This first immunotherapy for cancer had quite an impressive success rate.

What Happened to the First Immunotherapy for Cancer?

Coley’s toxin was used by many doctors during the first part of the 20th century. When conventional chemotherapy was developed mid-century, it displaced Coley’s toxin. Dr. Coley’s approach was largely forgotten for decades. Around the turn of the 21st century, entrepreneur Don MacAdam attempted to produce it commercially, but his efforts were thwarted by regulatory agencies such as HealthCanada and the FDA.

Does the First Immunotherapy for Cancer Hold Any Lessons for Our Time?

Immunotherapy is now one of the most promising new treatments for many types of cancer. Some medicines, such as CAR-T , are designed specifically for individual patients and teach their immune systems to attack the cancer. Understanding how Coley’s toxin worked against cancer also helps us understand these modern medications.

Oncologists are now using immunotherapy in conjunction with chemotherapy to kill cancer cells and get a better response. Find out how the lymphatic system is involved in this way of treating cancer and how doctors try to determine which patients will respond best. How can families stay up to date on the latest treatments?

This Week’s Guests:

Don MacAdam is the former head of MBVax Bioscience and the author of The Reinvention of Coley’s Toxins that tells the story of a small company with limited financial resources that proved a modern version of the first immunotherapy for cancer was able to induce complete and lasting regressions of cancers that no longer responded to conventional therapies. His book is available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/The-Reinvention-of-Coleys-Toxins/dp/0995921822

Sharon S. Evans, PhD, is a Professor of Oncology in the Immunology Department at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York. Dr. Evans is a past president of the international Society for Thermal Medicine, which honored her this past year with the J. Eugene Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award. Her research program is focused on the inflammatory cues that positively or negatively impact our protective immune system during infection or medical treatments such as cancer immunotherapy.
Roswell Park was one of the very first comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute, in 1972.


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