An on-going clinical trial frees a woman from advanced colon cancer

A 50-year old woman who suffered from colon cancer that had spread to her lungs is now free from cancer following a clinical trial using her own white blood cells.

Her remarkable recovery was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Before treatment, the patient had 7 tumors in her lungs. 40 days following treatment, all 7 of her lung metastases had shrunk. At a 9-month follow up, one of the tumors appeared to have started to develop resistance to the treatment, although it was successfully removed by surgery. The patient has since remained cancer free. No adverse side effects were reported.

Her cancer cells contained a mutation in a gene called KRAS, which is very common in cancers such as colorectal and pancreatic cancers. Cancers with this mutation generally have a poor prognosis, and previous attempts by scientists to target this mutation had been unsuccessful. This study marks the first successful attempt to target this KRAS mutation in a cancer.

Essentially, the immunotherapy treatment works by extracting the white blood cells that swarm around the patient’s tumors (these white blood cells are also known as Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes (TILs), multiplying them in the lab, and then returning them to the patient.

The patient’s TILs included some cells that could recognise the KRAS mutation present on the tumor. This meant that the TILs could very specifically identify and lock into her cancer cells, like a guided missile. Once bound, the TILs can kill the cancer cells*.

This clinical trial is led by Dr Steven Rosenberg, Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute, Maryland, who has pioneered the use of TILs in immunotherapy.

The study is currently still recruiting participants. Here is a link to the trial if you would like to find out more (including eligibility criteria, etc).

Although one experiment on one patient doesn’t guarantee that the treatment will be effective in others, it’s a promising start that may lead to a better treatment for thousands of other patients.


*If you’re interested in learning a bit more about how TILs actually kill cancer cells, I’ve written a very short follow-up explanation here.


About Rina Soetanto

Rina Soetanto is currently doing her PhD in molecular biology. She also has an extensive background in pharmacology and pre-clinical cancer research, as well as an undergraduate science degree from the Australian National University with a double major in neuroscience and immunology.

3 thoughts on “An on-going clinical trial frees a woman from advanced colon cancer

  1. Do he TILs kill the cancer cells through phagocytosis? Or another method since the cancer cells would be bigger than common bacteria right?

    1. Hi Jon,

      That’s a good question! It inspired me to write a very short follow up article, as some others may be interested too.

      Here’s the link:

      In short, the TILs end up killing the cancer cells by disrupting the membrane of the cancer cells (a process called lysis), as well as by forcing the cancer to undergo programmed cell death (a process called apoptosis- to put it bluntly, it forces the cancer cell to commit suicide). They do this by releasing chemicals once bound to the cancer cell.

      I hope this answers your question! Please let me know if not, and I’ll try to explain it a different way.


      Kind regards,

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