Coley’s Toxins: Could 1890’s Method Help Treat Cancer?

Coley's Toxins: Could 1890's Method Help Treat Cancer?

Getting a diagnosis of any type of cancer must be devastating. No one can prepare you for what the next few months will hold; whether it be repeated hospital visits, bouts of debilitating chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or the simple feeling of loneliness as you try to deal with your disease.

There have been a great many medical theories on best treatments for cancer but most recently, a controversial method of treating cancer has reemerged. Coley’s toxins were first used back in the 1890s by Dr William B. Coley, who was a bone surgeon, working at Memorial Hospital in New York City (now Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center).

Dr Coley failed to save a young woman from bone cancer and after this he began to review bone cancer cases. He noted that those cancer patients who developed bacterial infections after they had undergone surgery, tended to have better outcomes than those who did not. He started to think that it was the infections that were helping to fight the cancer cells as the immune systems in the patients were stimulated.

Dr ColeyWith this theory in mind, Dr Coley began to inject live bacteria into cancer patients, but changed his approach because of the danger of serious or even fatal infection.

He then began to use bacteria that had been killed. Studies into what is now known as immunotherapy continued and different formulas of Coley’s toxins were made by several drug companies in the United States, in the first half of the twentieth century.

They were used to treat patients with a variety of types of cancer up until the early 1950s. It was at this point that other forms of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy became more widely used. Dr. Coley passed away in 1936, but his daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, continued with her father’s work, and had published several papers documenting his results.

She founded the Cancer Research Institute in New York in 1953, which continues to study to this day, how immunology can help diagnose and treat cancer.

Although combinations of Coley’s toxins and other strains of bacteria are still being used at the Waisbren Clinic in Milwaukee, this treatment has fallen out of use in the last few decades by most oncologists in favor of more modern treatments. To most oncologists, Coley’s research is of more value as a foundation for what is now modern cancer immunotherapy.

Some studies found that Coley’s toxins improved survival for people with certain forms of cancer, while other studies did not find a significant benefit. However, with serious doubts now being voiced about the efficacy of chemotherapy, the focus has returned again to Coley’s toxins. Some supporters of the toxins believe that tumor cells are more sensitive to heat than normal cells and it is the high fever caused by Coley’s toxins helps to rid the body of cancer.

For readers in the UK who would like more information on Coley’s Toxins, there is a charity based in the UK called Star Throwers, that is run by volunteers, dedicated to helping people affected by cancer.