In the late 1800s, a New York surgeon named William Coley noticed that some patients with cancer seemed to fare better if they developed an infection after undergoing surgery. Suspecting that the immune system played a role in this mysterious response, he tried treating cancer patients with bacteria in an effort to turn on the immune system. Coley’s bold experiments largely failed, however, and faded into obscurity as other cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, were put into practice.
Coley wasn’t wrong—just far ahead of his time. More than a century later, advances in how the immune system can be harnessed to fight cancer have offered new hope to patients with lung cancer. One of the latest immunotherapies to reach the market is a drug called nivolumab (Opdivo), which the FDA recently approved for the treatment of patients with advanced squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).