By DANIEL ENGBER
Published: December 21, 2012
excerpt:Faced with this troubling complexity, doctors have fallen back on treating cancer like a game of Whac-A-Mole: find the harshest clone and knock it down, then repeat the process when the tumor reappears. Or else doctors will attack the tree right at its trunk, by finding those ancestral genes that every species in the body shares. But there’s another way to counter cancer’s biodiversity. Our bodies come equipped with a system custom-built to handle pathogens in all their many forms. If the immune organs could be activated against a cancer, we might find a pathway through the jungle and, maybe, to a cure.
“The work that the immune system does to sculpt itself around a cancer — that’s really the ultimate type of personalized medicine,” says Jedd Wolchok, a cancer immunotherapy expert at Memorial Sloan-Kettering who consulted on Steinman’s treatment. “The immune system’s job is to recognize the signs of danger and then with very exquisite precision to mobilize antibodies” and T-cells “that very, very precisely bind to individual targets.” Once that system locks on to its target, it can make adjustments, too, shaping the response to match the contortions and mutations of a tumor in real time. “It’s a therapy that lives,” Wolchok says, “rather than a medicine that passes in and out of the system.”