At first, Candace Brown didn’t think too much of the large, lumpy bruise that spontaneously appeared on her leg about a year ago. But when it didn’t heal after a couple of weeks, she decided to get it checked out. Even though her primary care physician told her not to worry, she pushed for a biopsy. The “bruise” was diagnosed as a skin melanoma.
Doctors told 44-year-old teacher and mother of two that the cancer had already spread to her lungs and lower intestine, a prognosis she said left her feeling terrified and bewildered. When she was told her condition had a five year survival rate, she stopped listening.
“I refused to hear it,” Brown recalled. “I decided I would do my own research and see what was out there for me that could help.”
Almost immediately Brown caught a lucky break. A quick review of clinicaltrials.gov, a website run by the United States National Library of Medicine, found a study for a new approach to treating melanoma at the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. Brown lives in Maryland, so the trial was being held right in her own backyard.
Instead of chemotherapy, the trial relied on something called immune-checkpoint blockade, a form of immunotherapy. Patients receive medicine that trains their own immune system to rally against cancer with the aid of specialized proteins known as monoclonal antibodies.
Dr. Michael Atkins, the medical oncologist who led the trial and who is also the deputy director of the Lombardi Center, explained that patients are often unable to battle cancer because tumors successfully block the body’s immune response to them. When this happens, tumors can continue spreading and growing without any resistance from the body’s healthy cells. Immune-checkpoint blockade aims to rouse the immune system so it has the strength to do an end run around cancer’s blocking techniques and fight against the disease.
“The antibodies take the brakes off the immune system’s response to a tumor,” Atkins explained. “They unblock the reaction that stops the immune system’s natural attack on invading cancer cell so the body can fight the cancer.”