In this new series, we will be spotlighting scientists of the past and present who have gone against the consensus or made discoveries that were trivialized, unnoticed, or outright ignored by their peers. Eventually, these pioneers’ contributions were celebrated by the scientific community.
William Bradley Coley, also known as “the Father of Immunotherapy,” was a pioneering American physician and surgeon who made significant contributions to the field of cancer treatment. Born in 1866 in New York City, Coley attended Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he graduated in 1891. After completing his medical education, he began working as a surgical resident at the New York Cancer Hospital, which would later become Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Coley’s work focused on the use of biological therapy, specifically the use of bacterial toxins, to treat cancer. He observed that some cancer patients with advanced tumors experienced spontaneous remission after contracting infections. He hypothesized that this was due to the body’s immune response to the infection, and began experimenting with the use of bacterial toxins to trigger this immune response in cancer patients.
One of his most notable cases was that of a patient named Fred Stein, who was suffering from an inoperable sarcoma of the jaw. Coley administered a mixture of bacteria, known as Coley’s Toxins, to Stein, resulting in significant shrinkage of the tumor and eventual remission. This case brought Coley national attention and sparked interest in the use of bacterial toxins in cancer treatment.
Coley continued to experiment with different combinations of bacteria and toxins, and treated hundreds of patients with advanced cancer. While he did not have the benefit of modern technology such as CT scans, MRI, etc. to confirm the exact location of the tumors, he kept detailed records of his patients’ responses to treatment. He found that the treatment was most effective in patients with sarcomas, and less effective in patients with carcinomas.
Despite the success of his treatments, Coley faced significant resistance from the medical community. Many of his colleagues were skeptical of his methods, and some even criticized him for using untested and potentially dangerous treatments. This skepticism was compounded by the lack of a clear understanding of the mechanism of action of his treatments, and the lack of randomized controlled trials to confirm their effectiveness.
Despite this resistance, Coley persisted in his work, and continued to treat patients with Coley’s Toxins until his retirement in 1933. After his death in 1936, interest in his work waned, and it was not until the 1970s that his methods were revisited and re-evaluated.
In the decades since, Coley’s work has been considered a forerunner of modern immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. Today, scientists and medical researchers continue to explore the use of biological therapy, including the use of bacteria and other microorganisms, to treat cancer.
William Bradley Coley’s pioneering work in the field of cancer treatment laid the foundation for modern immunotherapy. Although his methods faced resistance and skepticism during his lifetime, Coley’s contributions to the field of cancer treatment have been recognized as a significant step forward in the fight against this disease. His legacy continues to inspire scientists and medical professionals to further explore the use of biological therapy in cancer treatment.