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The origins of immunotherapy

The origins of immunotherapy
A color-enhanced scanning electron microscope image of a genetically modified CAR-T lymphocyte (pink) attacking a leukemia cell. CAR-T is a new form of immunotherapy. (Eye of Science)

Through the centuries, physicians and scientists have repeatedly returned to the promise of harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight against cancer. Often, their search was inspired by a cancer patient’s sudden return to health after beating back a viral or bacterial infection.

In 1898, Dr. William B. Coley, who would become known as the father of immunotherapy, tried to prime patients' immune systems by injecting their tumors with mixtures of live and inactivated bacteria. Occasionally, Coley reported, it worked spectacularly, inducing remission in patients with sarcoma, lymphoma, and testicular carcinoma.

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But the idea of infecting cancer patients in order to heal them didn't seem like a winning strategy to most people at the time. And in the end, the success of such efforts was limited by the immune system's inability to recognize cancer as a threat and mount a sustained attack against it.

That's why doctors have focused their treatment strategies on cutting cancers out with surgery, poisoning them with chemotherapy drugs and damaging their DNA with radiation.Now it may be time for immunotherapy to join surgery, chemo and radiation in the front ranks of cancer therapies.

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Melissa Healy

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