NEW YORK — Doctors have taken an important step toward a long-sought goal: harnessing a person’s immune system to fight cancer.
An article published Thursday in the journal Science describes the treatment of a 43-year-old woman with an advanced and particularly deadly type of cancer that had spread from her bile duct to her liver and lungs, despite chemotherapy.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute sequenced the genome of her cancer and identified cells from her immune system that attacked a specific mutation in the malignant cells. Then they grew those immune cells in the laboratory and infused billions of them back into her bloodstream.
The tumors began “melting away,” said Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, senior author of the article and chief of the surgery branch at the cancer institute.
The woman is not cured: Her tumors are shrinking, but are not gone. And an experiment on one patient cannot determine whether a new treatment works. But the report is noteworthy because it describes an approach that may also be applied to common tumors — like those in the digestive tract, ovaries, pancreas, lungs, and breasts — that cause more than 80 percent of the 580,000 cancer deaths in the United States every year.
Rosenberg’s patient, Melinda Bachini, now 45, a paramedic in Billings, Mont., and the mother of six children, said that without the cell treatment, “Honest, I don’t know that I would be here.”
Rosenberg agreed, saying that in April 2012, when Bachini received the first immune treatment, her life expectancy was probably a matter of months.
Related techniques involving immune cells have brought lasting remissions for people with leukemia and melanoma. But until now researchers had not found a way to use the cells against the solid tumors that cause so many deaths.
Other researchers said the treatment used by Rosenberg’s team, known as adoptive cell therapy, had promise for these common cancers. But they also cautioned the report was early and based on just one patient.
Dr. Carl June, who directs similar research at the University of Pennsylvania, said the research addressed an important issue by showing that adoptive cell therapy could have an effect on commonly lethal solid tumors.
Another expert, Dr. Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said the report showed that carefully selected immune cells could be a powerful tool against bile duct cancer. But he also said it was too soon to tell if the same approach would work for other patients or if it could be scaled up to treat all those who might need it.
Rosenberg acknowledged that there were limitations: The technique required highly sophisticated techniques in immunology and produced a treatment tailored to only one patient.