Cancer: the forgotten cure

It is 1890 in New York. It is dark. Dr. William Coley turns around and turns around in his bed. The day before, this young 28-year-old surgeon saw one of his patients die for the first time. This patient, Elizabeth Dashiell, died of bone cancer. And Dr. Coley is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and helplessness.

In the early morning, he leaves his house. But instead of going, as usual, to the New York Cancer Hospital where he works, he decides to go to Yale. Yale is the major university two hours by train north of the city, in the neighbouring state of Connecticut. Yale was already, at the time, world-renowned for its medical school. The university library maintains an archive that covers all known diseases to date, accurately describing the cases of millions of patients.

It is in this prodigious deposit that Dr. Coley will look for cases of “sarcoma” similar to the one that killed his patient. Sarcoma is a kind of cancer. Dr. Coley hopes to find cases in which patients with the same cancer as her patient have recovered. Because he is convinced that there is a treatment somewhere that could have saved her.

For more than two weeks, his research was in vain. He’s peeling pounds of dusty files. But the conclusion is always the same: the patient is dead. He begins to despair when one evening, when he is about to give up, he makes an amazing discovery.


Dr. Coley has unknowingly discovered a case that will revolutionize cancer treatment. He discovers the complete medical file of a man whose sarcoma mysteriously disappeared after catching an infectious disease. This disease, which has almost disappeared today, is called erysipelas. It is a skin infection caused by a bacterium, streptococcus. It manifests itself as large red patches, which can touch the face, but more often the legs, and is accompanied by fever. But it’s not a serious disease.

Immediately after catching the erysipelas, this patient’s sarcoma suddenly disappeared. Dr. Coley searched for other similar cases and found several in the archives, some of which dated back hundreds of years: their cancer (sarcoma) had disappeared after a simple skin infection!

He discovered that other medical pioneers such as Robert Koch (who discovered the famous Koch bacillus, responsible for tuberculosis), Louis Pasteur, and the German doctor Emil von Behring, who received the first Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1901, had also observed cases of erysipelas coinciding with the spontaneous decline in cancer.

Convinced that it could not have been a coincidence, Dr. Coley decided to voluntarily inoculate one of his throat cancer patients with the streptococcus (bacteria) responsible for erysipelas. The experiment was conducted on May 3, 1891 on a man named Mr. Zola. Immediately, his cancer regressed and Mr. Zola’s health improved considerably. He regained his health and lived another eight and a half years.

Dr. Coley created a mixture of dead, less dangerous bacteria called Coley’s Toxins. This mixture was administered by injection until it caused fever. It was observed that the remedy was effective, including in the case of metastatic cancers.


The first patient to receive Coley’s Toxins was young John Ficken, a 16-year-old boy with a massive abdominal tumor. On January 24, 1893, he received his first injection, which was repeated every two or three days, directly into the tumor. With each injection, he had a fever outbreak… and the tumor regressed. By May 1893, 4 months later, the tumour had only one fifth of its original size. By August, it was almost imperceptible. John Ficken was definitely cured of cancer (he died 26 years later of a heart attack).


But Coley’s Toxins came up against a formidable “competitor”: the development of radioactive ray machines (radiotherapy), which were more easily industrialised.

Coley himself equipped himself with two radiotherapy machines. But he quickly concluded that they were less effective. For forty years, he continued to successfully use Coley’s Toxins until his death on April 16, 1936.

The formidable business of chemotherapy then took over to ensure that this remedy, much simpler, less dangerous, and above all much less expensive, remained in the oblivion of medicine.


Fortunately, the story did not end there. In 1999, open-minded researchers took over Dr. Coley’s archives. They compared its results with those of the most modern cancer treatments. And they realized that his results were superior!

“What Coley was doing for sarcoma patients then was more effective than what we are doing for these same patients today,” said Charlie Starnes, a researcher at Amgen, one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies, working in France with the National Cancer Institute.

Half of Coley’s sarcoma patients lived ten years or more after starting treatment, compared to 38% with the most recent therapies. Its results in patients with kidney and ovarian cancer were also superior.


Today, an American company, MBVax, has resumed research on Coley’s Toxins.

Although it has not yet conducted the large-scale studies necessary for their commercialization, 70 people benefited from this therapy between 2007 and 2012.

The effects were so positive that the major scientific journal Nature reported on them in December 2013[1]. The information was also published in the French magazine Le Point on 8 January 2014[2].

The people who benefited from this non-approved therapy were people affected by terminal cancers, including melanomas, lymphomas, malignant tumours in the breast, prostate, ovaries. It is common practice in hospitals to allow people in very difficult situations to turn to innovative therapies, which are denied to others.

Despite the extreme severity of these cancers, Coley’s Toxins caused a decrease in tumors in 70% of cases, and even complete remission in 20% of cases, according to MBVax.

The problem the company faces today is that, to conduct the large-scale tests required by current regulations and build a production unit to European or North American standards, the financing requirements amount to… hundreds of millions of dollars.

What was possible in 1890 in the office of a simple New York doctor passionate about his mission has now become almost impossible in our hyper-technological and hyper-world… suffocated by regulations.

Let us hope that a researcher will be able to find the right arguments to convince the experts on the committees that will preside over the future of our health system, that a little boldness and a little freedom are essential to allow progress and save lives. But I doubt that the bureaucrats who govern us will understand that easily.

To your health!