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Even with everything he’s accomplished since, 1985 was a banner year for Dr. Steven Rosenberg. In July, he became a media star after removing a 2-inch polyp from President Ronald Reagan’s large intestine. In December, he announced that a seemingly hopeless immunotherapy for cancer that failed in the first 66 patients had cured the 67th of metastatic melanoma, which was almost always fatal back then.

Reagan lived another 19 years, never developing colon cancer. The melanoma patient is, against all odds, still alive and well. But the immunotherapy, which Rosenberg eventually figured out worked via cells called tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), has yet to become a cell-based cancer treatment: TILs failed more patients than it cured and were a bear to manufacture.


Meanwhile, CAR-Ts, another type of immunotherapy that Rosenberg also pioneered, were approved last year for rare blood cancers, becoming the paradigm of cell-based cancer therapy. And even as Rosenberg had been improving TIL therapy, getting it to cure 30 percent of patients with metastatic melanoma, colleagues and competitors slammed him as a cancer cowboy who rushed experimental therapies into patients, muttering darkly that “Steve is always better about reporting his successes than his failures.”

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