Andrew Pollack in The New York Times:
The young surgeon was mystified. A fist-size tumor had been removed from the stomach of his patient 12 years earlier, but his doctors had not been able to cut out many smaller growths in his liver. The cancer should have killed him, yet here he lay on the table for a routine gallbladder operation. The surgeon, Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, examined the man’s abdominal cavity, sifting his liver in his fingers, feeling for hard, dense tumors — but he could find no trace of cancer. It was 1968. Dr. Rosenberg had a hunch he had just witnessed an extraordinary case in which a patient’s immune system had vanquished cancer. Hoping there was an elixir in the man’s blood, Dr. Rosenberg got permission to transfuse some of it into a patient dying of stomach cancer. The effort failed. But it was the beginning of a lifelong quest. “Something began to burn in me,” he would write later, “something that has never gone out.” Half a century later, Dr. Rosenberg, who turns 76 on Tuesday and is chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute here, is part of a small fraternity of researchers who have doggedly pursued a dream — turbocharging the body’s immune system so that more cancer patients can experience recoveries like his long-ago patient’s.
Dr. Rosenberg, Dr. Carl H. June of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have been at the forefront of this research for decades, laboring in separate labs in an intense sometimes-cooperative, sometimes-competitive pursuit to bring to fruition a daring therapy that few colleagues believed would work. Now, versions of the therapy for a limited number of blood cancers are nearing approval by federal regulators, and could reach the market as early as next year. The technique, known as cell therapy, gives each patient an individualized and souped-up version of their own immune system, one that “works better than nature made it,” as Dr. June puts it. The patient’s T-cells, the soldiers of the immune system, are extracted from the patient’s blood, then genetically engineered to recognize and destroy cancer. The redesigned cells are multiplied in the laboratory, and millions or billions of them are put back into the patient’s bloodstream, set loose like a vast army of tumor assassins. This is an unusual pharmaceutical — a drug that is alive and can multiply once inside the body. Dr. June calls these cells “serial killers.” A single one can destroy up to 100,000 cancer cells.