Historic Moment for Immunotherapy

VIDEO | 00:02:17

MSK oncologist Jedd Wolchok (left), his patient Sharon Belvin, and former SKI immunologist James Allison celebrating the 2018 Nobel Prize in Stockholm for one of the most important advances of the last 50 years. Sharon was the first person at MSK to have a complete response to an experimental therapy harnessing her own immune system to fight her cancer, stage 4 melanoma.

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Early in the days of clinical trials of a medicine called ipilimumab, which is an immune therapy that was approved subsequently to treat melanoma, I was leading a clinical trial here. And I met a young woman who was at the time 23 or 24 years old. 

She was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma that had spread to her lungs.  

She arrived in our clinic looking rather gray and, in a wheelchair, asking what else we could do to try to help her. 

I told her about a clinical trial. It was a placebo-controlled randomized trial.

But faced with no other reasonable options, she courageously volunteered for this study.

She got four doses of at the time unknown treatment back in 2005. 

And after 12 weeks the radiologist called me with the results of her first CAT scan. And he said to me, "What did you give to this patient?"  And I said, "Why do you see some side effect that I need to know about?"  He goes, "No, the cancer is gone."  And that sent shivers down my spine, because radiologists weren't used to calling melanoma doctors with good news. 

That patient has not received any treatment in over ten years. That patient continues to live a remarkably fulfilling life. She's gone on to have two children, which I have to say if I had to retire at any point in the past, it would have been the day after her first child was born. Because that to me was a firm demonstration of the power of this treatment to extend people's lives in a meaningful way.

Fortunately, there have been others. But for me that was the ah-ha moment.

I keep in my office a photograph that was taken of that patient, myself and Dr. Jim Allison, the inventor of the therapy that has seemingly cured her. One year after, she went into remission. It may be faded from the sun in my window, but it's still there.