The Greek scientist who made patient’s cancer disappear
Nikos Zacharakis is a scientist from Patra, Greece, who works with a group of researchers who managed to eliminate end-stage breast cancer for the first time in a 49-year-old woman who had three months left.
The experimental treatment on which the Greek scientist and his colleagues are working on is based on a production of millions of immune cells which are injected into the patient’s bloodstream and, thus, helping the body fight cancer. It is basically based on a “living drug”, made by the patient’s immune system cells, which makes it the most advanced and personalized treatment available.
Jupiter Perkin’s, a mother of two, with metastatic breast cancer, came to the trial after receiving multiple treatments, including several chemotherapy and hormonal treatments, that had not stopped her cancer from progressing. To treat her, the researchers sequenced DNA and RNA from one of her tumors, as well as normal tissue to see which mutations were unique to her cancer, and identified 62 different mutations in her tumor cells.
The researchers then tested different lymphocytes (TILs) from the patient to find those that recognized one or more of these mutated proteins. TILs recognized four of the mutant proteins, and the TILs then were expanded and infused back into the patient. She was also given the checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab to prevent the possible inactivation of the infused T cells by factors in the tumor microenvironment. After the treatment, all of this patient’s cancer disappeared and has not returned more than 22 months later.
The woman who was in the final stage of the disease and her doctors gave her only three months of life, today, two years after her treatment, has no trace of cancer in her body. However, as they explain, more testing is needed in a larger number of patients to confirm the effectiveness of the new treatment before being used more widely in clinical practice.
The 38-year-old scientist grew up in Patra and as a child dreamed of going to America and becoming an astronaut. After graduating from the Chemistry Department of the University of Patra, he decided to have a postgraduate degree abroad, and a professor suggested the US because he knew another Greek professor who worked on biochemistry in Philadelphia.
He then went to Philadelphia, where he studied and had research assignments on rare diseases in Norfolk. In 2015, he sent his resume to the National Health System of America and was recruited by the National Cancer Institute for the specific project, supervised by Stephen Rosenberg. Thus, he was assigned the new experimental immunotherapy, and more specifically, the follow-up of the patient’s health progress. After the first positive results, Nikos Zacharakis undertook the study for “Nature Medicine”.
The American, now ex-patient, says for the period that her health had deteriorated by the end of 2015, “When you have metastatic cancer, you can be treated, but not cured. Each treatment has been working for less and less time than the previous one, and that was exhausting. I couldn’t do any of the things I enjoyed in the past and I didn’t want to go on. I wanted to end with the death issue”.
Her cancer had made metastases in the liver and lymph nodes of the chest and abdomen, and she was quite hesitant to undergo an experimental treatment knowing that the odds were not in her favor. “I resigned from my job and expected to die” the 52-year-old Judy Perkins continues. “In a matter of two weeks, though, I could feel the tumors on my chest shrink and I felt better. It is like a miracle and I am thrilled by the fact that I have been clear of cancer for two years”.