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Doctors use immune therapy against cervical cancer

  • In this August 2011 photo provided by Arrica Wallace, Wallace poses with her husband, Matthew, and sons Marccus and Mason in Mexico during a vacation, two weeks after her first round of chemotherapy. Arrica Wallace was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered in 2011. It spread widely, with one tumor so large that it blocked half of her windpipe. The strongest chemotherapy and radiation failed to help, and doctors gave her less than a year to live. But her doctor heard about an immune therapy trial at the Cancer Institute and got her enrolled. "It's been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans" that show no sign of cancer, Arrica Wallace said. (AP Photo/Courtesy Arrica Wallace)

    In this August 2011 photo provided by Arrica Wallace, Wallace poses with her husband, Matthew, and sons Marccus and Mason in Mexico during a vacation, two weeks after her first round of chemotherapy. Arrica Wallace was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered in 2011. It spread widely, with one tumor so large that it blocked half of her windpipe. The strongest chemotherapy and radiation failed to help, and doctors gave her less than a year to live. But her doctor heard about an immune therapy trial at the Cancer Institute and got her enrolled. "It's been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans" that show no sign of cancer, Arrica Wallace said. (AP Photo/Courtesy Arrica Wallace)

  • In this August 2012 photo provided by Arrica Wallace, husband Matthew shaves Arrica's head when her hair was falling out in Manhattan, Kan. Arrica Wallace was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered in 2011. It spread widely, with one tumor so large that it blocked half of her windpipe. The strongest chemotherapy and radiation failed to help, and doctors gave her less than a year to live. But her doctor heard about an immune therapy trial at the Cancer Institute and got her enrolled. "It's been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans" that show no sign of cancer, Arrica Wallace said. (AP Photo/Courtesy Arrica Wallace)

    In this August 2012 photo provided by Arrica Wallace, husband Matthew shaves Arrica's head when her hair was falling out in Manhattan, Kan. Arrica Wallace was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered in 2011. It spread widely, with one tumor so large that it blocked half of her windpipe. The strongest chemotherapy and radiation failed to help, and doctors gave her less than a year to live. But her doctor heard about an immune therapy trial at the Cancer Institute and got her enrolled. "It's been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans" that show no sign of cancer, Arrica Wallace said. (AP Photo/Courtesy Arrica Wallace)

  • In this August 2011 photo provided by Arrica Wallace, Wallace poses with her husband, Matthew, and sons Marccus and Mason in Mexico during a vacation, two weeks after her first round of chemotherapy. Arrica Wallace was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered in 2011. It spread widely, with one tumor so large that it blocked half of her windpipe. The strongest chemotherapy and radiation failed to help, and doctors gave her less than a year to live. But her doctor heard about an immune therapy trial at the Cancer Institute and got her enrolled. "It's been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans" that show no sign of cancer, Arrica Wallace said. (AP Photo/Courtesy Arrica Wallace)
  • In this August 2012 photo provided by Arrica Wallace, husband Matthew shaves Arrica's head when her hair was falling out in Manhattan, Kan. Arrica Wallace was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered in 2011. It spread widely, with one tumor so large that it blocked half of her windpipe. The strongest chemotherapy and radiation failed to help, and doctors gave her less than a year to live. But her doctor heard about an immune therapy trial at the Cancer Institute and got her enrolled. "It's been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans" that show no sign of cancer, Arrica Wallace said. (AP Photo/Courtesy Arrica Wallace)

Two years ago, Arrica Wallace was riddled with tumors from widely spread cervical cancer that the strongest chemotherapy and radiation could not beat back. Today, the Kansas mother shows no signs of the disease, and it was her own immune system that made it go away.

The experimental approach that helped her is one of the newest frontiers in the rapidly advancing field of cancer immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s natural ways of attacking tumors.

At a conference in Chicago yesterday, doctors also reported extending gains recently made with immune therapies against leukemia and the skin cancer melanoma to bladder, lung and other tumor types.

The cervical cancer experiment was the first time an immune therapy has worked so dramatically against a cancer caused by a virus – HPV. In a pilot study by the National Cancer Institute, the tumors of two out of nine women completely disappeared and those women remain cancer-free more than a year later. That’s far better than any other treatment has achieved in such cases.

Doctors are trying it now against throat, anal and other cancers caused by HPV, the human papillomavirus, and think it holds promise for cancers caused by other viruses, too.

This is “very, very exciting,” said Dr. Don Dizon of Massachusetts General Hospital, a women’s cancer specialist with no role in the study.

Wallace lives in Manhattan, Kan., and was 35 when her cervical cancer was discovered. It spread widely, and one tumor was so large it blocked half of her windpipe. Doctors said she had less than a year to live, but with sons ages 8 and 12, “I couldn’t give up,” she said.

She enrolled in the study, and researchers removed one of her tumors, isolated special immune system cells that were attacking it, multiplied them in the lab and gave billions of them back to her in a one-time infusion. They also gave her drugs to boost her immune response – “like Gatorade for the cells,” she said.

“It’s been 22 months since treatment and 17 months of completely clean scans” showing no sign of cancer, Wallace said.

The second woman to have a complete response has been cancer-free for 15 months so far, said one study leader, Dr. Christian Hinrichs of the Bethesda, Md.-based cancer institute.

“There’s no way to know” whether the results will be permanent, he said.

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