Could Immunotherapy Lead the Way to Fighting Cancer?

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Hearing about the mass terrified her. Her own mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 56. From that point on, Miss Vanessa, then 40, became the matriarch of a large family that included her seven younger siblings and their children. Because she knew how it felt to have a loved one with cancer, she joined a church ministry of volunteers who helped cancer patients with chores and doctor visits. As she prepared meals for cancer patients too weak to cook for themselves, she couldn’t know that the disease would one day come for her, too.

The ER doctors told Miss Vanessa she wouldn’t get the results of follow-up tests—a colonoscopy and a biopsy—until after the July 4 weekend. She had to smile her way through her own 60th birthday on July 6, stoking herself up on medications for nausea and pain to get through the day.

At 9:30 the next morning, a doctor from the Greater Baltimore Medical Center called. He didn’t say, “Are you sitting down?” He didn’t say, “Is there someone there with you?” Later Miss Vanessa told the doctor, who was on the young side, that when he delivers gut-wrenching news by telephone, he should try to use a little more grace.

It was cancer, just as Miss Vanessa had feared. It was in her colon, and there also was something going on in her stomach. The plan was to operate immediately, and then knock out whatever cancer still remained with chemotherapy drugs.

Thus began two years of hell for Miss Vanessa and her two children—Keara, who is now 45, and Stanley Grade, 37—who live nearby and were in constant contact with their mother and her husband. The surgery took five hours. Recovery was slow, leading to more scans and blood work that showed the cancer had already spread to the liver. Her doctors decided to start Miss Vanessa on as potent a brew of chemotherapy as they could muster.

Every two weeks, Miss Vanessa underwent three straight days of grueling chemo, administered intravenously at her home. Keara and her two teenage sons came around often to help out, but the older boy would only wave at Miss Vanessa from the doorway of her bedroom as he rushed off to another part of the house. He just couldn’t bear to see his grandmother so sick.

Miss Vanessa powered on for 11 months, visualizing getting better but never really feeling better. Then, in July 2015, the doctor told her there was nothing more he could do for her.

“My mom was devastated,” Keara says. Keara told her mother not to listen to the doctor’s dire prediction. “I said to her, ‘The devil was a liar—we are not going to let this happen.’”

So Keara—along with Miss Vanessa’s husband, brother and brother’s fiancée—started Googling like mad. Soon they found another medical center that could offer treatment. But it was in Illinois, in the town of Zion—a name Miss Vanessa took as a good omen, since it was also the name of her 5-year-old grandson. In fact, just a few days earlier little Zion had asked his grandmother if she believed in miracles.

The family held a fund-raiser for Stanley to get on a plane to Chicago with his mother every two weeks, drive her to Zion and stay with her at the local Country Inn & Suites hotel for three days of outpatient chemotherapy. It felt like a replay of her treatment in Baltimore—worse, since the drugs were delivered in a hotel instead of in her bedroom, and the chemotherapy caused nerve damage that led to pain, tingling and numbness in Miss Vanessa’s arms and legs. And then, in May 2016, the Illinois doctor, too, said there was nothing more he could do for her. But at least he offered a sliver of hope: “Go get yourself on a clinical trial.” Weeks later, desperate, Miss Vanessa and Keara grew hopeful about a treatment involving mistletoe. They attended an information session at a Ramada extolling the plant extract’s anti-cancer properties. But when they learned that it would cost $5,000 to enroll, they walked out dejected.

Finally, Miss Vanessa’s husband stumbled onto a website for a clinical trial that seemed legit, something underway at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, just down the road from their home. This new treatment option involved immunotherapy, something markedly different from anything she had gone through. Rather than poisoning a tumor with chemotherapy or zapping it with radiation, immunotherapy kills cancer from within, recruiting the body’s own natural defense system to do the job. There are a number of different approaches, including personalized vaccines and specially engineered cells grown in a lab. (See “A Cancer Vaccine?” and “A DNA-Based Attack”)

The trial at Hopkins involved a type of immunotherapy known as a checkpoint inhibitor, which unlocks the power of the immune system’s best weapon: the T-cell. By the time Miss Vanessa made the call, other studies had already proved the value of checkpoint inhibitors, and the Food and Drug Administration had approved four of them for use in several cancers. The Hopkins researchers were looking at a new way of using one of those drugs, which didn’t work at all for most patients but worked spectacularly well for some. Their study was designed to confirm earlier findings that had seemed almost too good to be true.

“With the very first patient who responded to this drug, it’s been amazing,” says Dung Le, a straight-talking Hopkins oncologist with long dark hair and a buoyant energy. Most of her research had been in desperately ill patients; she wasn’t used to seeing her experimental treatments do much good. “When you see multiple responses, you get super-excited.”

When Miss Vanessa paid her first visit to Le in August 2016, the physician explained that not every patient with advanced colon cancer qualified for the trial. Investigators were looking for people with a certain genetic profile that they thought would benefit the most. It was a long shot—only about one person in eight would fit the bill. If she had the right DNA, she could join the trial. If she didn’t, she would have to look elsewhere.

About a week later, Miss Vanessa was in her kitchen, a cheery room lined with bright yellow cabinets, when her telephone rang. Caller ID indicated a Hopkins number. “I didn’t want anyone else to call you but me,” said the study’s principal investigator, Daniel Laheru. He had good news: her genes “matched up perfectly” with the criteria for the clinical trial. He told her to come in right away so they could get the blood work done, the paperwork signed and the treatment started. Miss Vanessa recalls, “I cried so hard I saw stars.”

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