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Coley’s Toxins

By Marge Smith, Curator | Winter 2019

With most contagious diseases now preventable, a cancer diagnosis probably strikes the most fear in people’s minds. But cancer treatment is making exponential progress, and talk of immunotherapy is regularly in the news. What is not so well known is Sharon’s deep connection to the man who made this possible a century ago!

In 1890, as a young doctor in private practice in
New York, Dr. William Coley became interested in cancer when 17-year-old Bessie Dashiell, a close friend of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., came to him with an injured hand.
Coley discovered a mass which proved to be a round cell sarcoma that soon spread through her body. Unable to save Bessie, he immersed himself in the research and treatment of cancer using the body’s own immune system. Rockefeller, who would become a lifelong friend, enthusiastically supported his research.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. & Bessie Dashiell

The following year, Coley joined the staff of the recently-founded New York Cancer Hospital–one of only two in the world dedicated to the treatment of cancer (and now known as the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center). The disease was little understood and greatly feared, with no successful treatment available. Coley quickly gained recognition for his unusual treatment approach.

He set out to prove that the body’s own immune system could be stimulated to attack cancer. Coley infected over 1,000 cancer patients with streptococcal bacteria, and as the immune system attacked the infection, it attacked the cancer in the process. The treatment, dubbed “Coley’s Toxins,” had good results, particularly in bone and soft-tissue sarcomas. Yet his treatment was met with skepticism and criticism by his peers. Contributing to its rejection was the fact that Coley had not followed clinical trial protocols. He was a physician first, his goal was to heal his patients, not conduct a reproducible experiment. “Coley’s Toxins” were entirely abandoned by oncologists once radiation therapy and chemotherapy were developed.

With his cancer work dismissed by the medical establishment, in 1901 he retreated to his country home in Sharon where he served on the staff of Sharon Hospital. Coley’s involvement with the hospital began in its earliest days and continued through his life. His presence on the staff boosted the prestige of the small rural hospital, and he set the bar high for those who followed, including his own surgeon son, Dr. Bradley T. Coley

On April 16, 1936, Dr. William Coley passed away. An article in the Harlem Valley Times best sums up his impact on Sharon: “The memory of Dr. William Bradley Coley bring to all the sudden realization that this Sharon neighbor was an outstanding authority of world-wide renown in the profession of medicine and surgery. An eminent personage, both through research and practical effort, this detracted not a whit from the homely fellowship of a mighty fine New England neighbor. For many years he had been a resident of Sharon where he always took an active part in community activities… Undoubtedly the leading authority on the treatment of cancer, scourge of mankind and puzzle of medical men… He also ‘did things’ as a record of more than 17,000 operations during his career will testify… A full life, rich in accomplishment, neighbors and associates cannot fail to have picked up some small spark from the mere act of association with the man or of knowing him.”

Helen Coley Nauts working to make her father’s treatment known

Coley’s daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, was determined to rescue her father’s legacy from obscurity after his death. Preparing his biography, she discovered a trove of his patient records and medical correspondence in their Sharon barn. She assembled some 1,000 case histories from the disorganized records. Helen taught herself what she needed to know, enlisted the help of doctors and wrote monographs that are still studied. In 1953, with a $2,000 loan from Nelson Rockefeller she established the Cancer Research Institute, which has grown into a global advocate for immunotherapy research. Helen dedicated her life to gaining recognition for her father’s work from the medical establishment until her death in 2001 at age 93.

Today’s interest in immunotherapy treatment and research has prompted vigorous new study of Coley’s work. In 2006 Dr. Edward McCarthy wrote: “The modern science of immunology has shown that Coley’s principles were correct and that some cancers are sensitive to an enhanced immune system…. He was a model of the clinician-scientist, treating patients and using his practice to initiate research and build theories…. William B. Coley, a bone sarcoma surgeon, deserves the title ‘Father of Immunotherapy.’ He was a man before his time, and he met with severe criticism. Despite this criticism, however, Coley stuck with his ideas, and today we are recognizing their potential value. ”

One wonders how immunotherapy treatment of cancer was stunted by the rejection of “Coley’s Toxins.” Science is making up for that lost time. Today immunotherapy drugs such as Keytruda, used in the successful treatment of Jimmy Carter’s cancer, owe their success to the work of Dr. William Coley and to his daughter Helen.

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