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Did you know? The first cancer-vaccines

One of the strategies to improve immunotherapies is to »vaccinate” the patient against their cancer in order to recruit immune cells that are able to attack tumors. A similar method uses modified viruses – the basis of the very first immune therapy for cancer. Already used at the end of the 19th century.

In 1891, William B. Coley plunged a syringe loaded with toxic bacteria (Streptococcus pyogenes) into the neck of a man with an inoperable tumor, obstructing his pharynx and letting him unable to swallow food. Coley was fascinated by some curious cancer stories about patients who suddenly found themselves cancer-free after contracting erysipelas caused by Streptococcus bacteria. In his research Coley unearthed 47 cases where the cancer had disappeared by scouring the ghettos of New York’s Lower East Side. That was all he needed to proceed directly to human trials, and an immigrant and drug-addict called Zola would become his first test subject.

It took several attempts, but finally, an hour after one particular injection the patient broke out into sweaty chills and the tumor started to liquefy and shrink. The patient lived on for another eight years.

But he was not the first to observe the effects of this special treatment. The earliest mention of cancer-fighting infections dates to a citation from 1550 B.C. and is attributed to the Egyptian physician Imhotep. His advice included treating the wound with a cloth coated in a poultice that would almost certainly lead to an infection, and subsequently cutting into the tumor.

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