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How this doctor figured out how to cure incurable cancer 120 years ago

Updated: Oct 8, 2022

A teenager Bessie Dashiell was Dr. William Coley's early patient.
Bessie Dashiell was 17 when she injured her hand.

In 1890, Bessie Dashiell injured her hand when it was caught between seats on a train. When her hand wouldn't heal for over a month, she visited a doctor.

This young doctor in a New York City hospital was Dr. William Coley. He diagnosed it as sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer.

The only treatment option available then was amputation.

Despite the surgery, Bessie's cancer spread and she died ten weeks later.

Dr. Coley was profoundly affected by the loss of his young patient, and began researching the hospital records in hopes of finding a better treatment.

And he came across a curious record of a German immigrant named Mr. Stein.

Mr. Stein had an inoperable sarcoma, but the tumor vanished after he got severe skin infection.

Dr. Coley actually found the patient, still living, with no sign of cancer.

As he continued his investigation, he found many other records of patients experiencing cancer remission after an infection.

So he began treating his patients with a mixture of bacteria, to induce infection.

Some patients became more ill. Some even died.

But for a surprising number of patients, cancer shrank and disappeared completely. And the patients would enjoy lasting remission.

Dr. William Coley

He experimented and improved the formulation – called Coley’s toxin. He carefully documented case studies and shared the formulation with other doctors.

So what happened?

Around the same time, Madame Curie in Paris had made her discovery of radioactive elements, which paved the way for X-ray machines and radiation treatment. A more influential physician in New York City was pushing for using the new radiation therapy to treat cancer patients.

Dr. Coley also tried radiation therapy for his patients, but he concluded that it was not curative.

But increasingly, the medical establishment considered Coley’s treatment to be unreliable, and his work began to be rejected by major hospitals.

(Radiation therapy had an immediate and reliable effect of shrinking tumors, even though the effect was not lasting or curative for majority of the patients.

By the time he passed away in 1936, only a few people were using Coley’s toxin.

And for decades, radiation therapy and chemotherapy (introduced after World War II) dominated oncology.

It wasn’t until the 2010’s that Dr. Coley's approach got wide recognition.

The approach of activating the patient’s immune system to fight cancer is called cancer immunotherapy.

And now, there are thousands of scientists and researchers working on different immunotherapy treatments to fight cancer, to help people.

But for dogs, immunotherapy treatment lags far behind that for people.

CCRA is trying to change that, by helping scientists with expertise in immunotherapy collaborate with veterinary researchers and clinicians. And supporting clinical studies and trials so that new immunotherapy treatments can be evaluated for safety and efficacy, and eventually become available to dogs with cancer around the world.


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