Triggering the Body’s Defenses to Fight Cancer

Lina Zeldovich in Nautilus:

One day in 2010, when oncologist Paul Muizelaar operated on a patient with glioblastoma—a brain tumor infamous for its deathly toll—he did something shocking. First, he cut the skull open and carved out as much of the tumor as he could. But before he replaced the piece of skull to close the wound, he soaked it in a solution containing Enterobacter aerogenes,1 bacteria found in feces. For the next month, the patient lay in a coma in an intensive care unit battling the bacteria he was infected with—and then one day a scan of his brain no longer showed the distinctive signature of glioblastoma. Instead, it showed an abscess, which, given the situation, Muizelaar deemed a positive development. “A brain abscess can be treated, a glioblastoma cannot,” he later told the New Yorker. Trying it, he thought, was worth the chance. He had done this only as a means of last resort in a couple of hopeless cases—but ultimately, his patients still passed away, which led to a scandal that forced him to retire.

Muizelaar’s approach may sound beyond outrageous, but it wasn’t entirely crazy. For over 200 years medics have known that infections, particularly those accompanied by fevers, can have a strange and shocking effect on cancers: Sometimes they wipe the tumors out. The empirical evidence for these hard-to-believe cures has been documented in medical literature, dating back to the 1700s. In the 19th century, some doctors tried treating cancer patients by deliberately infecting them with live bacterial pathogens. Sometimes it worked, sometimes the patients died. Injecting people with dead bacteria worked better and, in fact, saved lives, at least in some cancers. The problem was that it didn’t work consistently and repeatedly so it never became an established treatment paradigm. Moreover, no one could explain how the method worked and what it did. Doctors speculated that infections somehow revved up the body’s defenses, but even in the early 20th century, they had no means of elucidating the mysterious force that devoured the tumor.

More here.