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It Can Be Risky, But Life-Saving

Like most kidney cancer patients, John Sirmans feared he didn't have long to live.

"They immediately removed the kidney and after that, CAT scans showed that it had migrated up into my lungs and things were kind of bleak," he says.

But as CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports, a risky but experimental treatment may be saving Sirman's life.

Kidney cancer is notorious for resisting chemotherapy and causing death, often within a year. Sirmans is enrolled in an experimental treatment program at the National Institutes of Health to see if blood stem cells from a matched donor — in this case his sister — might re-charge his failing immune system.

How it works

"The therapy involves knocking out their immune system and replacing it with a healthy immune system from a donor who doesn't have cancer," says Dr. Richard Childs of the National Institutes of Health.

The procedure is relatively simple: healthy blood stem cells are collected from the donor and given to the patient intravenously. In most cases in the NIH trial, results were seen after just one infusion.

The donor stem cells are able to build an entirely new immune system for the patient, which then targets and attacks the tumors, in some cases causing them to disappear. It is a completely different approach to treating solid tumors.

Of 19 patients in the trial:

  • Two died as a result of complications from the transplant procedure.
  • Six saw their tumors stop spreading.
  • Four, including John Sirmans, have been completely cancer free for more than a year.

"All of his metastatic disease within his lung had completely disappeared," notes Dr. Childs.

Promising for other cancers

Some, including Dr. Charles Hesdorffer of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, believe once the science of stem cell transplants is perfected, it may be a promising new way to treat many cancers.

"It allows us to move forward and use stem cells or similar technologies to treat not only kidney cancer but also potentially colon cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver tumors."

Though far from a cure, the stem cell treatment is another novel approach to fighting cancer that, for at least one man, has meant a new approach to life.

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