The end of chemo: Safer ways to fight cancer

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When 14-year-old Nick Wilkins' leukemia resisted chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, his doctors turned to the real pros: Nick's own immune cells.

(CNN) – When 14-year-old Nick Wilkins’ leukemia resisted chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, his doctors turned to the real pros: Nick’s own immune cells.

Using an experimental treatment, the doctors taught Nick’s immune system to attack his cancer in much the same way he’d fight off the common cold. Two months later, Nick went into complete remission.

Twenty-one other young people received the same treatment, and 18 of them had similar responses to Nick’s.

The University of Pennsylvania and other medical centers are testing the targeted approach in more patients, and doctors are cautiously optimistic it might work to treat other types of cancer.

“This is absolutely one of the more exciting advances I’ve seen in cancer therapy in the last 20 years,” says Dr. David Porter, a hematologist and oncologist at Penn. “We’ve entered into a whole new realm of medicine.”

In the last five years the Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 20 targeted cancer therapies for tumors with specific genetic markers, according to the American Association for Cancer Research.

One approach deprives cancer cells of essential nutrients. A drug using this approach was approved in February after a clinical trial showed it shrank tumors in nearly 58% of patients with a rare blood cancer.

There are also drugs that contain man-made antibodies that glom on to cancer cells and, once inside, release toxic chemicals.

“I call them smart bombs,” says Dr. Patricia LoRusso, who investigates experimental drugs at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit and helped develop a therapy approved last year for late-stage breast cancer.

A similar concept still in the early stages of experimentation loads a drug onto star-shaped particles of gold 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair to cause DNA damage inside the nucleus of cancer cells.

“If you shut down the brain (of the cancer cell), the whole cell is going to die,” says Teri Odom, a materials science professor at Northwestern University.

In time, researchers hope to use a lot less chemotherapy to fight cancer.

“These more elegant and targeted approaches will ultimately do away with the less elegant, less targeted traditional (therapies),” says Dr. Renier Brentjens, director for cellular therapeutics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

By John Bonifield

1 Comment

  • alex khesh

    Dear Mr. Bonifield,

    As a son who witnessed his mother undergo intense chemotherapy and radiation therapy and the incredible toll it took on her body while battling breast cancer, I found this post extremely important and relevant to our time. Chemotherapy has been used to treat cancer since the 1940’s. However, chemotherapy and radiation therapy have been proven to lead to side effects such as severe fatigue and vomiting, extreme weight loss, shortness of breath from thickening of the lining of the lungs, damage to the nervous system, and increased risk of stroke. Dr. Jian-Guo Geng, associate professor at the University of Michigan, stated that “all tumors […] can be killed by high doses of chemotherapy and radiation, […] but you actually kill the host before you kill the tumor.” While I understand some cancers require aggressive treatment, some of the side effects listed above seem just as life-threatening as the cancer itself. Furthermore, several studies have shown that receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy can actually worsen the cancer by producing resistant cancer cells. I can’t help but wonder why high doses of chemotherapy are still being used to treat cancer when scientists and oncologists from around the world have been able to find alternative treatments, such as Dr. Burzynski’s antineoplastons, which have proven to be equally effective and, more importantly, safer. If patients continue to be exposed to intense chemotherapy and radiation therapy, I fear cancer cells will develop an even stronger resistance to treatments, rendering any other alternative completely ineffective.

    After reading your post about the alternative treatments found by Dr. David Porter and Dr. Patricia LoRusso, it seems clear that a substantial amount of funding would be needed in order to continue further research, perfect these alternatives, and replace chemotherapy completely. Along with the perfection of more effective and less invasive treatments, I believe all doctors treating patients with cancer should also implement osteopathic methods. In addition to drug therapy and surgery, the osteopathic approach incorporates a unique method of treatment, known as holistic medicine. This form of medicine not only treats specific symptoms and illnesses, but also considers the body as a whole; body, mind, spirit and emotions. While the treatment will include prescribed drugs, it will also involve lifestyle modifications to prevent future occurrences. I understand that lifestyle modifications cannot always solve the problem, and that traditional drug therapy and surgery is sometimes necessary; however, it seems clear that a holistic approach can in fact benefit patients. According to Cancer Research UK, cancer patients treated with osteopathic medicine claim that it can help control pain, headaches and tension. They also reported that these patients felt more relaxed which improved their overall health and well being. Though alternatives to chemotherapy and radiation therapy are not perfect, scientists have made significant strides in finding possible safer treatments. In the future, I am hopeful these alternatives will supply the right ammunition to finally overcome the battle against cancer.

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