Teaching the Human Body to Kill Cancer

Cancer-slaying T-CellsCNN just published an amazing story about a potential cure for cancer. Researchers at the National Institutes for Health retooled 17 patients’ immune systems to kill their cancers. The researchers adapted a virus to modify immune system cells from the patients to seek out and kill their own cancers. The patients were then subjected to chemotherapy to kill off their immune systems. Their genetically re-engineered cells were then introduced to their bodies and the cells killed off the cancers.

The research has raised eyebrows across the cancer treatment community.

This news arrives with a special poignance for my sister-in-law’s family. They just learned that my sister-in-law’s mother has lung cancer and may not survive more than a year.

It’s too soon for this radical new therapy to be widely used, and my brother and his in-laws and all their friends can only hope that other treatments will emerge to help battle this highly destructive illness. It’s a pity we cannot put people in to stasis to wait for better treatments, although such a radical move would have devastating consequences on their lives in other ways.

Back in the 1980s, I subscribed to an interesting magazine. Each year it was retitled. I think it was called Science ’80 when I first learned about it and became a subscriber. In 1981 it becameScience ’81, and so forth. The magazine was written for mass audiences and it was the best magazine of its kind at the time. Unfortunately, the magazine failed in the mid-1980s. Many of its writers apparently went over to the rival publication Discover, the quality of which improved radically afterward.

Well, there was an interesting article in one of those old Science ‘YY issues about a man, call him Uncle Ted, who fell asleep somewhere around 1957 (give or take a few years). His family took care of him for something like 25 years. He sat relatively undisturbed in a chair in a living room in a relative’s house.

An entire generation of children grew up around this sleeping man. He barely moved. His family checked on him regularly but rarely if ever were able to feed him or administer any fluids. I believe they had to change his clothes a few times and they kept him as clean as they could. But he sat in that chair for about 25 years and slept.

Are you thinking of Rip Van Winkle?

One day, a physician came to visit the family. She asked who the sleeping man was. “Oh, that’s just Uncle Ted,” she was told. Gradually, the physician learned that Uncle Ted had been asleep for an entire generation. She was naturally amazed, curious, and fascinated by the medical implications of such a condition.

The doctor persuaded Uncle Ted’s family to admit him to a hospital. There the staff subjected him to a series of tests and discovered that his metabolism had almost completely shut down. Not entirely so. There was just enough metabolic activity to keep Uncle Ted alive (or sort of alive) for about 25 years.

With the family’s permission, the doctors implemented a treatment to speed up Uncle Ted’s metabolism. He revived quickly and regained awareness. He woke up in the hospital and understood where he was. Relatives came to visit him but the staff carefully monitored Uncle Ted’s progress. And they witheld from him the knowledge that 25 years had passed. They even managed to find a library to donate 25-year-old newspapers for Uncle Ted to read.

Does it sound like a great story? Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for Uncle Ted. As the days and weeks passed, the doctors at the hospital performed a number of tests on Uncle Ted to determine why his metabolism had slowed down so much and how it had sustained itself for so long. To their dismay, the doctors learned that Uncle Ted had a rapidly developing tumor. I don’t recall which type of cancer he had, but it was one of the most aggressive forms. And it was a cancer that had developed in his body before he fell asleep 25 years previously.

Somehow, Uncle Ted’s body had mustered the only defense it could against the cancer: it slowed its metabolism just enough to keep itself clinically alive for many years, and by doing so it slowed the growth of the cancer. But when the doctors revived Uncle Ted, they also revived the cancer.

He died soon afterward, but not before his family were able to spend a little more time with him.

Maybe Uncle Ted’s metabolic syndrome could serve a useful purpose for many of today’s cancer patients if doctors could safely slow down the metabolism enough to sustain life and delay the growth of tumors. But for reasons I have never learned, medical science appears to have passed on this option. Uncle Ted may have just been so genetically fortunate that his body was capable of doing something the rest of us cannot do.

Still, one can hope that one day we’ll be able to preserve human life even when we don’t yet have the means to cure whatever ails us.

My thoughts are with all those who are involved in the struggle today. Take heart, for work is nonetheless progressing.