In 1891, a cancer researcher and bone surgeon named William Coley decided to treat a woman’s tonsillar cancer by injecting the tumor with live streptococcus bacteria. He repeated this injection a few times; within five months, the woman, Zola, developed a streptococcal skin infection called erysipelas. Interestingly, however, the tumor completely disappeared, giving Zola 8 more years to live before it reoccurred.
While Coley refined this vaccine using dead bacteria and published a case series about how it helped treat cancer in many of his patients, the medical community did not have confidence in these ‘Coley’s Toxins’- they did not understand why it worked. So, they favored a different innovation: radiotherapy.
Meanwhile, scientists continue to study Coley’s Toxins during clinical trials.
Bacteria as medication
In a study published in BMJ Journals, researchers from the Australian National University outline results from their preclinical animal studies and a small clinical trial where they used a similar approach to cancer treatment as Coley.
The team, led by Dr. Aude Fahrer used killed mycobacterium to reduce tumors in mice, dogs, and horses. They saw complete regressions in 3% of the mice, 21% of the dogs, and 18% of the horses.
They subsequently conducted a clinical trial with 8 human participants, one of whom had metastasized late-stage renal cancer. The researchers injected their mycobacterium solution directly into his neck tumor which decreased in size. They detected the same results in a lung tumor but found that other metastases remained stable or increased in size. According to Fahrer, the treatment “significantly improved (this) patient’s quality of life.”
While these numbers are low, the preclinical trial showed the researchers that earlier treatment would yield better results. The injections also activated a targeted immune response which led to regressions in metastasized regions. Furthermore, the treatment has a low occurrence of side effects.
How does the treatment work?
According to the study, when bacteria are introduced into a tumor, the immune system responds to the threat.
– Dr. Aude Fahrer
“The idea is this will bring immune cells into the cancer to attack the bacteria, even though they’re dead, and as a side effect cause the immune cells to attack the cancer as well.
“Once the immune cells multiply they can travel around the body, so it would not only attack the cancer at the injection site but any metastases – where the cancer has spread to another part of the body.”
If the treatment gets approved, it could make cancer treatment significantly more approachable when compared to the current immunotherapies available. According to Fahrer, the difference is as big as $40,000 and $20 per dose.
Source: Australian National University