Coley's Toxins: A 100-Year-Old Immunotherapy

Over 100 years ago, a Harvard-trained surgeon named William Coley discovered how to harness the human immune system against cancer.

William Coley, 1892Dr. Coley was a surgeon at Memorial Hospital in New York City, now the world-famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). In 1890, he encountered a patient with sarcoma—the same disease as mine. He witnessed her die a horrific death, her body rapidly riddled with innumerable tumors.

Determined to find a better treatment, he scoured patient records looking for clues. They led him to a remarkable discovery: a patient with terminal sarcoma had experienced complete regression of disease after a bacterial infection. Dr. Coley tracked down the patient and found him alive and cancer-free—7 years after he should have died.

And so began Dr. Coley's lifelong research into immunotherapy. 

At first, he injected tumors with live bacteria. But this proved risky, as patients could die from infection. Later, he neutralized the bacteria with heat. This therapy would come to be known as "Coley's Toxins."

Over his career, Dr. Coley treated more than 1000 patients. About half of these experienced near-complete regression—an astounding achievement in an era where chemo didn't yet exist.[1] Many patients who should've died within months survived for years. Some survived for decades—effectively cured.

Other physicians tried to reproduce his work. Some succeeded. Many didn't. This could've been due to non-standard methods of production (or administration) of the toxins.

(Photo of Dr. William Coley, 1892: From Cancer Research Institute, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A cure for cancer you say? Sounds too good to be true?

Understandably, that's what many doctors thought of Dr. Coley's claims. To the detriment of mankind, many maligned his work as quackery. The American Cancer Society even labeled it as such, setting back the field of immunotherapy by decades.

Despite the controversy surrounding the toxins, a faithful core of researchers clung to the tantalizing evidence. Keeping an objective and open mind, they labored to understand the immune system better and explain the science behind our body's capacity to suppress cancer.

Today, the curative potential of immunotherapy is increasingly difficult to deny. A "vast majority" of patients who responded to the immunotherapy drug Yervoy in 2000 are alive 16 years later—an eternity for patients who would've died within the year.[2]

So dramatic are the breakthroughs with modern immunotherapies such as PD-1 and CAR-T, that doctors now dare to utter the "cure" word.[3] It's no coincidence that Vice President Joe Biden is spearheading an ambitious moonshot to "cure" cancer.[4]

But all these merely validate what Dr. Coley had already shown us 100 years ago—that our bodies are capable of curing cancer with some help. That is why leading scientists now hail Dr. Coley as the "Father of Cancer Immunotherapy."

Not a Hoax

The internet is rife with claims of cancer cures. My husband and I pursued many of these claims, until we found Coley's Toxins and immunotherapy.

But readers should note that Coley's Toxins isn't a hoax. It's real medicine, once used by the Mayo Brothers (founders of the Mayo clinic). It's based on the now-irrefutable science of immunotherapy. And Dr. Coley wasn't a "quack." He was Chief of the Bone Sarcoma Unit at the premier U.S. cancer hospital of its time.

I know from first-hand experience that it's hard for many to grasp the significance of Coley's Toxins. Why doctors label it as quackery. In Chapter Five of our book, we delve into its origins and the circumstances that relegated it into obscurity.

If you're a cancer patient searching for hope, we encourage you to examine the inspiring cases of cures with Coley's Toxins below. These cases demonstrate that a century ago, Dr. Coley and his colleagues had already shown immunotherapy can work across different cancers. 

In an era before chemotherapy, once a cancer had spread or become inoperable, death was inevitable. Yet, Coley's Toxins cured them.

We trust you'll arrive at the same conclusion we came to. That a cure for cancer was possible a century ago—and still is today.


[1] McCarthy, Edward F. "The toxins of William B. Coley and the treatment of bone and soft-tissue sarcomas." The Iowa orthopaedic journal 26 (2006): 154.
[2] Levy, Robert. "Hope Blossoms." Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
[3] Regalado, Antonio. "Biotech's Coming Cancer Cure." MIT Technology Review. N.p., 18 June 2015. Web. 30 June 2016.
[4] Kaiser, Jocelyn. "Scientific Advisers Tapped to Guide Biden's Cancer Moonshot." Science. N.p., 04 Apr. 2016. Web. 30 June 2016.

Excerpt from 2006 paper by Stanford Researchers:

"A compiling of Dr. Coley’s clinical observations indicated that in certain tumor types such as soft tissue sarcoma and lymphoma, the response is remarkable even by today’s standards. For example, out of 104 inoperable sarcoma patients who were treated with Coley’s Toxin alone, over 50% demonstrated complete tumor regression at the time of therapy and subsequently more than 5-year survival. Further, approximately 20% of patients were cured and survived over 20 years. These response rates remain unsurpassed by subsequent and even recent modern immunotherapy trials."

[i] Tsung, Kangla, and Jeffrey A. Norton. "Lessons from Coley's toxin." Surgical oncology 15.1 (2006): 25-28.

Metastatic Cervical Cancer Cured

In 1899, Mrs. R. Gruver, age 49, had metastatic cervical cancer, spread to her intestines. She had less than 18 months to live. Her son, himself a physician, injected her with Coley's Toxins. She lived another 30 years cancer free. She died from the flu at 79.

Metastatic Ovarian Cancer Cured

In 1933, Mrs. G.L. of Pawtucket, R.I, age 38, had metastatic ovarian cancer, spread to the omentum and liver. Unable to eat, she'd shriveled to 69 lbs. Death loomed. After Coley's Toxins, she was traced 20 years later, cancer free, a healthy 128 pounds.

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma Cured

In September 1925, Mr. G.B., a sailor, age 32, lost his leg to cancer. A tumor the size of a fist grew on the amputated stump. The lymphoma rapidly spread to his stomach, groin and scalp. Yet, G.B. was traced 27 years later, cancer-free and healthy.

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