When 14-year-old Nick Wilkins' leukemia resisted chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, his doctors turned to the real pros: Nick's own immune cells.
Using an experimental treatment, the doctors taught Nick's immune system to attack his cancer in much the same way he'd fight off the common cold. Two months later, Nick went into complete remission.
Twenty-one other young people received the same treatment, and 18 of them had similar responses to Nick's.
The University of Pennsylvania and other medical centers are testing the targeted approach in more patients, and doctors are cautiously optimistic it might work to treat other types of cancer.
"This is absolutely one of the more exciting advances I've seen in cancer therapy in the last 20 years," says Dr. David Porter, a hematologist and oncologist at Penn. "We've entered into a whole new realm of medicine."
In the last five years the Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 20 targeted cancer therapies for tumors with specific genetic markers, according to the American Association for Cancer Research.
One approach deprives cancer cells of essential nutrients. A drug using this approach was approved in February after a clinical trial showed it shrank tumors in nearly 58% of patients with a rare blood cancer.
There are also drugs that contain man-made antibodies that glom on to cancer cells and, once inside, release toxic chemicals.
"I call them smart bombs," says Dr. Patricia LoRusso, who investigates experimental drugs at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit and helped develop a therapy approved last year for late-stage breast cancer.
A similar concept still in the early stages of experimentation loads a drug onto star-shaped particles of gold 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair to cause DNA damage inside the nucleus of cancer cells.
"If you shut down the brain (of the cancer cell), the whole cell is going to die," says Teri Odom, a materials science professor at Northwestern University.
In time, researchers hope to use a lot less chemotherapy to fight cancer.
"These more elegant and targeted approaches will ultimately do away with the less elegant, less targeted traditional (therapies)," says Dr. Renier Brentjens, director for cellular therapeutics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.