Experimental therapy uses immune system to fight breast cancer

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In 2014, at the age of 41, Barbara Popoli was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC.

"The first doctor that saw me actually went pale and he excused himself from the room," she remembered. "It was already inoperable and it had spread to 20 lymph nodes."

It was a shock since Barbara had never heard of IBC. It began with swelling in her breast and arm.

"And the skin started to get pink and the texture of my skin started to change and instead of feeling smooth like a tomato it started to feel rough and dimply like the outside of an orange," she continued.

Even more dismal were her odds of survival.

"I have never met so many people who have passed so quickly. Anywhere from 60 to 80 percent pass away within just a couple of years after having it," she said.

After a year and a half of traditional treatments including chemo, immunotherapy, and radiation, she joined a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. The experimental therapy helps restore immune cells that fight the cancer.

"I think this is a big deal for patients because we've identified that there is a deficit in this cell type so we're actually offering a specific therapy to correct that particular defect," explained Dr. Brian Czerniecki, who is heading up the study at Moffitt. 

The defect that may also be present in other breast cancers, including DCIS, lies in T-cells called CD-4'S.

"We identified people who didn't have a complete response to therapy, have a loss of a particular type of immune cell called the CD4 cell, the same cell that the AIDS virus attacks," he said.

To fix the problem, a large catheter inserted in the neck is connected to a blood-filtering machine. A bag collects white blood cells that are then transformed and multiplied into over a hundred million cancer-fighting cells.

Treatments consist of injections of 20 million cells into a lymph node in the groin. So far, results are promising.

"Everyone to date, so far, their immune response has boosted up to where almost to the point where healthy women are walking around," Dr. Czerniecki said.

Side effects are flu-like symptoms, usually lasting about 24 hours. The side effect means the immune system is responding to the therapy.

Barbara hopes it's enough to keep her cancer from coming back.

"There's not a lot of options for us except chemo," she continued.  "If we can stop it and let people get back to a healthy life, it's going to be amazing."