Breast Cancer Patient Pioneer: Judy Perkins' Immunotherapy Story
In 2003, Judy Perkins was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Ten years later, the cancer returned as metastatic. Although disheartened by this news and the limited (and often ineffective) standard treatments, Judy was driven to explore more options and groundbreaking research. After several clinical trial and treatment attempts, she learned about an immunotherapy clinical trial at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, while taking a class for breast cancer advocates. Accepted and enrolled into the trial, she received a form of immunotherapy known as tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL).
“I knew that within 10 days things were moving in the right direction,” Judy said. She described the feeling of her tumor beginning to shrink and get softer. She felt it was a positive sign, and sure enough, her tumors soon fully disintegrated, and her energy was back.
When the results of that clinical trial became public at the ASCO Annual Conference in 2018, Judy’s cancer journey and treatment because headline news around the world. She is the first person to be cured of metastatic breast cancer through TIL therapy.
How Judy’s Treatment Worked
Cancer patients have naturally occurring T cells that are capable of targeting cancer cells. However, they may not be properly activated or exist in sufficient numbers to fight cancer on their own.
A member on Judy’s oncology team explained, “Judy was one of the first patients to teach us that by carefully looking at her body’s immune cells, we could identify cells that uniquely recognize her cancer and by growing them in a lab and giving her enough of them we could actually cause the cancer to regress completely.”
In tumor infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, the medical team harvests naturally occurring T cells that have already infiltrated patients’ tumors, and then activates and expands them. Next, large numbers of these activated T cells are re-infused into patients, where they can then seek out and destroy tumors.
Researchers in Judy's trial ran an experiment to test different cells that target tumor mutations to detect if they could reduce tumors. These anti-tumor cells were deposited back into Judy's body.
Thankfully, the treatment proved successful, and Judy has been cancer-free since 2016.
Judy Perkins and the Future of Immunotherapy
While she may be the first breast cancer patient successfully treated with TIL therapy leading to no evidence of disease, Judy is not the last. Researchers continue to explore applying this form of cellular immunotherapy to work for more cancer patients and in other cancers.
Given her success, Judy advocates for other breast cancer patients in several ways, from telling her story to fighting for new legislation. Her advice for other patients dealing with late-stage cancer is to acquire a second opinion, educate yourself on the disease, and be an engaged patient. She also counsels seeking a comprehensive cancer center for treatment and researching clinical trials for possible treatment options.
Today, Judy lives a healthy and active life, and works to fulfill her “karmic duty” to advocate for other metastatic breast cancer patients.
Read interview with Judy Perkins
Learn more about how the Cancer Research Institute is helping to advance research that is leading to treatments like the one Judy received. You can make a difference in the lives of patients like Judy by supporting cancer immunotherapy research efforts today.
Originally published July 2021