When Karen Koehler was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2011, she was told not to worry. She had a mild case that could simply be monitored, her doctor said. But two years later, the cancer took a turn for the worse when a genetic mutation made it aggressive and difficult to treat with chemotherapy. “I was told I had 10 months to live,” says Koehler, 59, a retired teacher who lives in Park Ridge, New Jersey. At best, she was told, chemo might stretch that to two years.
Then Koehler was accepted into a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York that aimed to turn her own immune cells into cancer killers. Within a month of treatment, her leukemia had vanished. “There were no cancer cells whatsoever,” says Koehler, who remains cancer-free today.
The MSK oncologists whose research has helped Koehler are working on the latest entry in the booming arena of cancer immunotherapy. The potential of boosting the immune system’s natural ability to fight off cancer was first realized with so-called checkpoint inhibitors, promising new drugs like Keytruda and Yervoy whose job is to block proteins that normally suppress immune function. These medicines are now being used to turn melanoma and lung cancer, once almost certainly terminal prognoses, into diseases that some patients can manage over the long term.
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