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.