Jimmy Carter attributed his cure from advanced melanoma to immunotherapy, a therapy that traces back to the initial idea of a 19th-century doctor.
A novel immunotherapy drug is credited for successfully treating former President Jimmy Carter’s advanced melanoma. Instead of killing cancer cells, these drugs boost the patient’s immune system, which does the job instead.
Immunotherapy is cutting-edge cancer treatment, but the idea dates back more than 100 years, to a young surgeon who was willing to think outside the box.
His name was William Coley, and in the late summer of 1890 he was getting ready to examine a new patient at his practice in New York City. What he didn’t know was that the young woman waiting to see him would change his life and the future of cancer research.
Her name was Elizabeth Dashiell, also known as Bessie, says Dr. David Levine, director of archives at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Bessie was 17 and showed up complaining of a problem with her hand. It seemed like a minor injury, just a small bump where she’d hurt it, but it wasn’t getting better, and she was in a lot of pain. She’d seen other doctors but nobody could diagnose the problem.
At first Coley thought Bessie must have an infection. But when he took a biopsy, it turned out to be a malignant, very advanced cancer called a sarcoma.
In those days there wasn’t very much anyone could do for Bessie. This was before radiation and chemotherapy, so Coley did the only thing he could — he amputated Bessie’s right arm just below the elbow in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading. Sadly, it didn’t work, and within a month, according to David Levine, the cancer had spread “to her lungs, to her liver and all over her body.”