What Is Immunotherapy?: Woman With Terminal Breast Cancer Saved by Pioneering Treatment

A team of researchers has saved the life of a woman with terminal breast cancer by using an experimental new treament, in what is believed to be a world first.

When Judy Perkins's body became unresponsive to currently available cancer treatments, doctors told her she had three months to live, according to BBC News. The cancer had spread from the then 49-year-old's right breast to her liver, and other parts of her body.

In an attempt to save her life, researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) offered the engineer an innovative new treatment known as immunotherapy.

Researchers saved Judy Perkins's life with a pioneering immunotherapy technique. Getty Images

Two years later, tests show the 52-year-old has no signs of cancer.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that harnesses the power of the immune system to home in on and attack cancer cells, and kill off the disease. The patient's white blood cells are assessed, and those fit to fight the cancer are reproduced in a lab. Immunotherapy is therefore known as a "living drug."

Perkins is thought to be the first patient successfully treated with immunotherapy.

To test the approach on her, researchers at the NCI sequenced the DNA and RNA from one of her tumors as well as her normal tissue to identify the mutations unique to her cancer. They harvested immune cells from her tumor, known as tumor infiltrating lymphocytes, which can pinpoint antigen targets, and grew them in a lab. The team then pumped 90 billion immune cells into her body.

The approach was a modified version of what is known as adoptive cell transfer (ACT), which has previously been used to treat melanoma, lung cancers and bladder cancer. It has so far been less successful in the treatment of cancers which start in the lining of organs and have lower levels of mutations, such as gastrointestinal cancers, breast and ovary. The researchers published their study on Perkins's case in the journal Nature Medicine.

"My condition deteriorated a lot towards the end, and I had a tumor pressing on a nerve, which meant I spent my time trying not to move at all to avoid pain shooting down my arm. I had given up fighting," Perkins said according to The Guardian.

"After the treatment dissolved most of my tumors, I was able to go for a 40-mile hike."

She told BBC News she felt the tumor in her chest start to shrink around a week after therapy.

Dr. Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute and lead author of the study, said in a statement: "We've developed a high-throughput method to identify mutations present in a cancer that are recognized by the immune system.

"This research is experimental right now. But because this new approach to immunotherapy is dependent on mutations, not on cancer type, it is in a sense a blueprint we can use for the treatment of many types of cancer."

Dr. Rosenberg told BBC News: "We're talking about the most highly personalised treatment imaginable," and added the mutations which cause cancer are in fact "its Achilles heel."

However, further research is needed to replicate the results in other patients.

Professor Alan Melcher, professor of translational immunotherapy at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, who was not involved in the study said in a statement: "This fascinating and exciting study in a single breast cancer patient provides a major 'proof-of-principle' step forward, in showing how the power of the immune system can be harnessed to attack even the most difficult-to-treat cancers.

But Nell Barrie, senior science information manager from Cancer Research UK, said in a statement that while it is "exciting" to see cutting-edge science at work and such treatments are promising, immunotherapy is "complex, expensive" and doesn't work for everyone. It will be some time before it can be widely available, she added.

Barrie said: "Research is ongoing to find more 'off the shelf' approaches that can help harness the immune system to target the changes in patients' cancers."