On a computer screen in Tampa, we can see a microscopic look at the future of cancer treatment: Highly specialized immune cells -- called T-cells -- are designed to attack tumors.
The cells look a bit like ants drawn to sugar.
"That's a great analogy," offered Dr. Amod Sarnaik, a surgical oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.
Sarnaik is part of a clinical trial to help treat metastatic melanoma. It's the deadliest type of skin cancer.
The treatment targets deadly melanoma at the DNA level. It's become hope for untreatable cancer patients like 50-year-old Brita Beningfield.
"There was no blaming anybody else. I didn't listen to my mother about going out in the sun. I smoked, I drank, I did everything you could possibly do to open yourself up to that," she admitted.
Brita's no stranger to cancer. Six years ago, doctors removed melanoma from her arm. Then came throat cancer. She was lucky and caught it early.
Then, in 2012, her melanoma came back. It was metastatic and had spread to her abdomen. Her prognosis was dim.
"My doctor...told me think months, not years. He said when you get out, do the things that are important to you."
Her last hope: Dr. Sarnaik's experimental cancer treatment. It showed promise in the lab and in the first round of tests.
"We enrolled patients who had incurable melanoma, and a fifth of them were cured, in that all their tumor was eradicated," Sarnaik said.
To better understand, think of a hunting dog. Given a scent, they are able to track down the target. But instead of dogs, researchers are training white blood cells to track down the cancer.
Here's how it's done: First they take blood from the patient and extract T-cells. The T-cells are trained to seek out and attack the cancer cells. Millions of these "tumor infiltrating lymphocytes" (TILs) are grown in the lab - basically creating a microscopic army. Then the super cells are re-infused back into the patient through a vein.
This is Brita's scan before and after treatment. In a matter of months her tumors disappeared. Dr. Sarnaik described Brita's case as "outstanding."
This T-cell infusion is not FDA-approved. More testing is needed.
We asked Brita if she believes the clinical trial saved her life. "Oh, I know it did, I would be decomposing somewhere at this point. I would be becoming one with the universe. That's without a doubt."
Brita hopes her success gives hope to others.
"There's been such a tremendous investment in me...keeping me alive. I have to figure out something to do to put back into it, to make the investment worthwhile. But that's something I can do. I'm one of the success stories. I'm glad it's working. It's good to still be around."
Dr. Amod Sarnaik, Moffitt Cancer Center: http://moffitt.org/research--clinical-trials/individual-researchers/amod-sarnaik-md
Moffitt melanoma clinical trial: http://moffitt.org/research--clinical-trials/clinical-trials/clinical-trial-16992
Moffitt clinical Trials: http://moffitt.org/research--clinical-trials/clinical-trials
Other clinical trials: http://clinicaltrials.gov/
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