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New Drugs Free the Immune System to Fight Cancer

By releasing the brakes that tumor cells place on the immune system, researchers are developing a new generation of more powerful treatments against malignancy

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In June 2004 I was asked to examine a 22-year-old woman who had just graduated from college and was engaged to be married. During the months leading up to her graduation, Shirley (not her real name) had been plagued by a nagging cough. Eventually a computed tomographic (CT) scan revealed multiple masses in and around her lungs. A biopsy indicated metastatic melanoma that had spread from a skin cancer Shirley did not know she had. She immediately began chemotherapy treatments timed around a hastily rescheduled wedding.

Unfortunately, two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments to her brain over the next two years slowed but could not stop the tumors' spread. Shirley was running out of options. I told her about a new study in which an innovative medicine designed to supercharge a patient's own immune system against cancer was being tested.

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