A pioneer in her own right, her incredible journey is well documented... as it should be. It's gone on to help save the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women. It also set the stage for one the greatest developments in medical history.
The year was 1990, and Barbara Bradfield discovered one of the worst things anybody can find: a lump on her breast and swollen lymph nodes under her arm.
A biopsy confirmed her worst nightmare -- she had metastatic breast cancer. Surgery to remove her breast and the lymph nodes quickly followed. Then chemotherapy -- one of the few treatments available at the time.
In 1991, more than 43,000 people died of breast cancer. Barbara expected to be one of them, as the survival rate for patients like her was about 20%. In fact, Barbara's form of cancer was so aggressive that most doctors gave her no chance of surviving.
The surgery and chemotherapy didn't work. Cancer returned. And her doctor offered the only thing he could at the time: more chemotherapy. But they both knew that this would only extend her life by a few months.
Barbara declined all further treatment.
She was staring death right in the face. She was prepared to die.
Why Cancer Is So Hard To Kill
Cancer has been -- and continues to be -- one of the most mystifying things about our human body. For years, the only treatment was chemotherapy or radiation, which essentially kills everything in its path in hopes of killing the cancer cells.
But thanks to decades of research and trillions of dollars, we are beginning to understand why our bodies can't fight off cancer cells just like any other virus. And that's because cancer cells can essentially "hide" from your immune system.
There are certain cell receptors that allow our immune system to know when to attack and when to stay at bay. A couple of the more common types are the CTLA-4 and PD-1 protein receptors. These receptors are designed to be activated by healthy cells in order to let your immune system know not to attack.
For example, fetus cells are covered with PD-1 signaling proteins. This lets the female body know that it shouldn't attack the "foreign" baby cells.
Cancerous cells make lots of PD-1 or CTLA-4 signaling proteins in order to "hide" so that they aren't attacked by our immune system. That's why chemotherapy and radiation have been the go-to treatment for so many years. It kills everything. Then as your body's immune system rebuilds, the hope is that the cancer cells won't return. But as often happens, that's not always the case... the cancer cells sometimes return.
But once we had a better understanding of how cancer cells were hiding, researchers began figuring out how to "reveal" these cancer cells so that the body's immune system could kill them just like any other virus.
And Barbara Bradfield was the first to undergo this new kind of treatment, which would prove to be one of the most important medical discoveries in decades.
Plus, it kicked off a new field of oncology called "immunotherapy," which is the use of antibodies that the human body can use to attack cancerous tumors and cells.
Dr. Slamon To The Rescue
After Barbara declined treatment and prepared herself for death, she received a phone call from UCLA oncologist Dennis Slamon. He asked if she would be willing to enroll in an experimental drug trial.
Slamon didn't give up. He begged her to reconsider. As Bradfield recalls, "He worried all night, and he called me the next morning and asked me to go talk with him." She conceded to the chat.
Remember, this was the early 1990s, and cancer-fighting drugs were still in their early infancy.
Slamon walked Barbara through how this new antibody could target the HER2 gene -- this is one of the cancer genes in breast cancer -- and possibly help fight off the cancerous tumors. At this point Barbara had 16 new growths, so she knew her time was limited.
Barbara agreed to join the trial.
Within two months, the tumor on Barbara's neck disappeared. At the end of the six-month clinical trial, she was cancer-free.
This was the first cancer-specific, biologic drug to be proven effective.
The drug was called Herceptin. It was made by Genentech (now a part of Roche Holdings). Genentech went on to develop two more cancer drugs. And its trio of biological drugs remains the three highest-grossing cancer drugs in the world. In 2013, they combined to generate sales of $21 billion... and, of course, shareholders of Genentech were rewarded with triple-digit gains.
Today, the next generation of these immunotherapy drugs is even better. And shareholders of the next promising biotech firms could see major gains in a short amount of time. It's definitely an area you should be watching if you're serious about making big gains in the market.
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This article originally appeared on Street Authority.