Steven Rosenberg recently began treating a patient with bile duct cancer who had already undergone chemotherapy, but the treatment had failed to stop the cancer from spreading to her lung and liver. He treated her with a new form of immunotherapy, personalized to attack her tumor cells that are unique to her cancer. Today, a year later, her tumors are still shrinking.

Though some scientists have suspected for more than a century that boosting the body’s immune system could be an effective cancer treatment, it is only now being used to treat people. Three of the scientists whose pioneering work on T cells that made immunotherapy a reality — Rosenberg, Zelig Eshhar and James Allison — were named the winners of the 2014 Massry Prize.

All three recently delivered lectures at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and all three drove home their belief that the immunotherapy, already an important part of treating some types of cancer, will eventually change we treat all cancers.

Rosenberg, MD, PhD, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute, discussed treating several melanoma patients with immunotherapy. Rosenberg described treating his first melanoma patients with a treatment called adoptive cell therapy, which helped many of them achieve a complete regression.

One limitation of early immunotherapy was its ability to attack only some types of cancers. Adoptive cell transfer was developed by Eshhar, PhD, professor of immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and is a technique to expand the range of T cells to attack cancers.

Allison, PhD, chair of the department of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, exposed how cancer cells evade immune system attacks and developed antibodies that block this ability.

All agreed that much more research needs to be done, but this wholesale shift, from treating tumors to treating the immune system represents a major breakthrough in cancer treatment. Though it is still new, this treatment represents hope for a growing number of cancer patients.

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation established the international Massry Prize to recognize outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences.

— By Hope Hamashige