Donald Foley, 75, had no intention of becoming part of the medical history books. When he was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 13, the only thing he cared about was returning to play baseball with his friends.
His doctors tried to keep the scope of his illness a secret, but Donald learned later that he came very close to losing his right arm—and his life. In those days, amputation was a commonly employed treatment for sarcoma. Luckily for Donald, his doctor at the time knew about some unconventional research being done at Memorial Hospital in New York under the direction of Bradley Coley, M.D.
Bradley Coley is the son of William Bradley Coley, M.D., the 19th century New York surgeon widely hailed as the “Father of Cancer Immunotherapy.” Bradley’s sister, Helen Coley Nauts, was the founder of the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). Both Bradley and Helen believed strongly in the value of William Coley’s approach to treating cancer. This approach involved inoculating patients with heat-killed bacteria in the hopes of stimulating a vigorous immune response against the cancer. This bacterial concoction became known as Coley’s toxins. William Coley developed this approach after noting a striking correlation between patients coming down with a bacterial infection and their cancer mysteriously disappearing. Over the course of his 40-year career, he treated hundreds of patients—some quite successfully—with his toxin therapy.
For Donald, the approach was a lifesaver. He went on to live a normal life, even becoming a professional firefighter. We spoke with Donald about being one of the last surviving patients treated at Memorial with Coley’s toxins—the world’s first immunotherapy.
It was 1953, a long, long time ago, and it was bone cancer—a sarcoma. It was on my right, the upper part of my right humerus. In that day and age, they didn't know as much as they know today and they told my parents that the diagnosis was not good and, worse than that, they said I had three months to live. So they wanted to amputate my arm. In lieu of that, there was a possibility of going down to Memorial Hospital in New York and being treated by Dr. Coley. So I did that instead.
I was told the reason for the toxin treatment was to jump-start my immune system to fight the cancer. The treatment was almost daily. I had radiation treatment in the morning and then the toxin treatment was in the afternoon. Every day I would feel my shoulder, and I could notice a difference. I could feel the tumor shrinking.
The injection was into a vein. It was a pretty good-size needle and it was a bluish fluid. I had the injection and what it did was it made me very, very hot. The core temperature of my body went way up. The nurses would come in with ice bags and apply them. That would last for, I believe, several hours and then gradually my temperature would revert to normal. Every day that I had a treatment, I had the spike in my body temperature. I don't understand it exactly, but somehow that temperature rise helped confront the cancer as well. Without that temperature rise, I guess they didn't feel it was really working.
I had 21 treatments. But by the time I left the hospital, I couldn't feel any tumor on my shoulder. After 3 months, I went in and saw Dr. Coley and he examined me and he determined that I didn't need any more treatments. So that was that. I had to keep going back for examinations every three months and every six months and then the five-year period.
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Rare and ultra-rare cancers affect around 20,000 people in the United States alone, according to Foundation Medicine, Inc. Immunotherapy research in some of the more common cancers and the identification of biomarkers that can predict patient responses is opening this new approach to cancer treatment up to patients whose cancers currently receive little direct attention.
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