Skip to main content
Move the World.
Precision Medicine Cured  an “Untreatable” Stage IV Breast Cancer
Judy Perkins, cancer survivor, is back to kayaking again. Credit: Courtesy of Judy Perkins

Two years ago, Judy Perkins had late-stage breast cancer, which had metastasized and spread tumors throughout her body. Doctors at the NIH called it untreatable, and one scientist described it as "basically a death sentence."

But oncologists built her a customized treatment, using her own immune cells, to target the cancer. The treatment eradicated the tumors all over her body, leaving her completely cancer free. According to the study published in Nature Medicine , she's been in "complete durable regression" for almost two years. It's the first time that a metastatic breast cancer has been stopped using this kind of immunotherapy, and it offers hope that other common cancers could be treated using this "precision medicine" model.

Hope in a Hopeless Place

After several rounds of chemo failed to stop her cancer from spreading, Perkins told journalists, "I had given up fighting" and was "planning on dying." Tumors pressed on her nerves and made it excruciating to move, and her condition continued to deteriorate rapidly. The prognosis for metastatic stage IV breast cancer is grim: the five-year survival rate is 22%. Her doctors gave her only "two to three months."

That situation made her a candidate for an experimental trial focusing on just such untreatable cancers, and she was selected for a pilot study at the National Cancer Institute, testing a radical and intensive new treatment.

The Treatment

Scientists biopsied her tumors and painstakingly analyzed the DNA of her cancer cells' DNA to identify the specific mutations that were causing her disease. They zeroed in on a few mutated genes that were found in all of her tumors, which created abnormal proteins. Her doctors then combed the tumors looking for lymphocyte T cells (the Soldiers of the Immune System™) that had invaded the tumors and were fighting a losing battle to destroy them.

They extracted and cultured these T cells, growing billions of them in the lab to find the specific type that would best target the cancerous mutations they had found. When they found the right cells, they grew 80 billion of them* and then injected them into her body. Doctors also gave her a drug that marginally improves the immune system's ability to break down her cancer cells' defenses. Then they waited.

The results were incredible. The customized infusion of T cells rapidly began dissolving the tumors. In six months, her tennis ball-sized tumors had halved in size. In ten months, scans showed her completely cancer-free. Two years later, the cancer is still gone. "After the treatment dissolved most of my tumors," Perkins told the Guardian, "I was able to go for a 40-mile hike." From trying not to move to an ultramarathon-length hike (still with only "mostly dissolved" tumors!) is astonishing.

After the treatment dissolved most of my
tumors, I was able to go for a 40-mile
hike.

Judy Perkins

The Upshot

We can't say just how good this therapy will be for other patients yet, or how many more women could be saved by it. Similar customized infusions failed to work for two other women in the pilot study, and that puts a damper on any wild ideas about there being a silver bullet "for" breast cancer, in general. But it's still a remarkable achievement, because while this sort of treatment has been done before with other cancers, it hasn't worked well with prostate or breast cancers, because they tend to have few identifiable mutations that could guide the T cells to target them.

The larger goal for precision medicine like this is to find and hack the features of disease that are unique to each person, helping the patients who fall through the cracks of medicine designed to work only on the largest number of people.

* If that sounds like a lot, that's because it really is: a healthy adult has about 400 billion total T cells in their body at any given time, and they are busy doing lots of different things, while these 80 billion were selected to focus on just one particular enemy.

Up Next

Biology of Addiction
Addict-Turned-Neuroscientist on Addiction and the Brain
Judith Grisel on addiction and the brain.
Biology of Addiction
Addict-Turned-Neuroscientist on Addiction and the Brain
In our interview with neuroscientist Judith Grisel, she discusses the state of research on addiction and the brain, as well as society’s view of addicts.

In our interview with neuroscientist Judith Grisel, she discusses the state of research on addiction and the brain, as well as society’s view of addicts.

Intel
The Future of Cancer Research
The Future of Cancer Research
Watch Now
Intel
The Future of Cancer Research
Intel's Bryce Olson used genomic sequencing to help fight his cancer. Now he’s helping researchers use artificial intelligence to discover entirely new cancer treatments.
Watch Now

Intel employee Bryce Olson was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. When the standard of care didn’t work, Bryce turned to genomic sequencing which allowed his doctors to identify specific genetic drivers of his disease and specific treatments and clinical trials that were a fit for his cancer. This precision medicine approach helped send his cancer into remission for several years. Now that his cancer has returned,...

Superhuman
Reprogramming Your Immune System to Fight Cancer
Reprogramming Your Immune System to Fight Cancer
Watch Now
Superhuman
Reprogramming Your Immune System to Fight Cancer
Your T cells already know how to kill cancer. These doctors can train them to hunt it down.
Watch Now

Josh Feldman was on his honeymoon when he felt a lump on his neck. Returning home after the best month of his life, his doctor gave him the news: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. There was no cure, and it was about to get much worse. After multiple rounds of chemotherapy failed to stop his tumors from growing, Josh went to see Dr. John Timmerman, an oncologist at UCLA who is trying something different, known as immunotherapy. This...

Dispatches
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
Dispatches
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
A new pill can make cancer cells glow under infrared light, and it could eliminate for mammograms.

A new pill can make cancer cells glow under infrared light, and it could eliminate for mammograms.

Superhuman
Patients are Finding Relief from New Essential Tremors Treatment using Focused...
These Doctors are Performing Brain Surgery ... Using Sound
Watch Now
Superhuman
Patients are Finding Relief from New Essential Tremors Treatment using Focused...
Bonnie D'Ettorre suffers from a nerve disorder causing uncontrollable shaking. Doctors at Ohio State are about to "burn it out" using a thousand beams of ultrasound.
Watch Now

Patients stricken with “essential tremors” have their lives upended by this nerve disorder which causes uncontrollable shaking. But doctors at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are helping these patients find relief by “burning out” the problem-causing part of the brain with a high-intensity focused ultrasound. This miracle treatment significantly reduces tremors without the potential for complications posed...

Coded
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
Coded
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
If huge companies and government agencies can't manage the cyber threats, how can ordinary Americans?
By James Poulos

If huge companies and government agencies can't manage the cyber threats, how can ordinary Americans?

The New Space Race
Who Owns the Moon?
Who Owns the Moon?
The New Space Race
Who Owns the Moon?
Throughout history, different organizations, governments, and even individuals have attempted to establish rules...
By Mike Riggs

Throughout history, different organizations, governments, and even individuals have attempted to establish rules for, and ownership of, outer space.

The New Space Race
Can This Startup Give Everyone Access to the Moon?
Can This Startup Give Everyone Access to the Moon?
The New Space Race
Can This Startup Give Everyone Access to the Moon?
With advanced navigational technology, Astrobotic wants to provide a routine, affordable, and accurate delivery...
By Mike Riggs

With advanced navigational technology, Astrobotic wants to provide a routine, affordable, and accurate delivery service to the moon.

How Do We Scale Bionic Technology?
Bionic technology and exoskeletons in the workplace
How Do We Scale Bionic Technology?
Right now, assistive bionic technology is really cool and really expensive. This is how it will get better and...
By Mike Riggs

Right now, assistive bionic technology is really cool and really expensive. This is how it will get better and cheaper.