Eighteen months ago, Jordan Harden's despairing doctors gave him just
weeks to live - the leukaemia he'd battled for much of his life had
Given the heartbreaking news, Jordan's parents, Garry and Claire,
decided to take their three-year-old for a final holiday together, to
Disneyland in Paris.
They told the hospital they were so distressed they didn't want to
receive any more calls from doctors about his test scans.
New outlook: Claire Harden with son Jordan
whose leukaemia went into remission after he had a high fever
'I just did not want to know,' says Claire. 'I just wanted to enjoy
this last chance together.'
But, days before they set off, the hospital did call - with the
astonishing news that Jordan's cancer had gone. Now, Jordan is at
school, just like any other healthy five-year-old boy.
In a similarly amazing case, soon after her birth in 2009, Grace
Woodhead was diagnosed with a swift-growing and inoperable brain cancer
that doctors said would kill her within a few months.
But, in February, the tumour started shrinking and continues to do
so; doctors have now told Grace's parents that their 19-month-old is no
longer going to die from the disease.
And, only this month, the Mail reported the extraordinary case of
Peter Crane, 60, a retired teacher whose incurable form of blood cancer
simply disappeared 18 months after he was diagnosed. He is officially in
'I couldn't believe it when they told me,' says Mr Crane from East
Boldon, South Tyneside. 'I was in shock.'
He is now enjoying a new lease of life with his wife Mary and says:
'My blood counts had been normal for about 12 months, so it had
disappeared without the need for any treatment.'
All these patients have one thing in common - there is no accepted
medical explanation as to why their cancers have disappeared. Doctors
call such cases 'spontaneous remissions'.
Many others are content to call them 'miracles' and leave it at that.
But researchers increasingly believe many such reprieves are actually
caused by a quirk of nature that could be harnessed to save the lives of
countless other patients - and the answer could be as simple as the
patient having a fever.
Jordan, from Wishaw, near Glasgow, was only ten weeks old when he was
diagnosed with the blood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Parents Garry, 31, and Claire, 27, worried that he seemed limp and
unresponsive, so they took him to see the GP. The doctor thought there
was nothing wrong, but the Hardens persuaded their local hospital to
test him for meningitis.
The blood tests revealed he had leukaemia and Jordan was rushed into
intensive care for a blood transfusion. He then endured several
six-month bouts of aggressive chemotherapy.
When this did not work, Garry and Claire paid for private treatment
involving an experimental stem-cell transplant in Barcelona, Spain. This
was also ineffective.
When the Hardens took Jordan for hospital scans in December 2008, the
little boy's outlook was bleak.
'The doctors told us there was no sign at all of recovery and that
the cancer had come back even more aggressively,' says his father Garry,
a security guard. 'There was nothing more they could do and they gave
him a few weeks to live - all he had was palliative care.'
It was tragic news, however the family decided to make Jordan's last
few weeks as happy as possible, including a trip to Disneyland.
'Just as we were getting ready to go, the consultant called, asking
us to come in. We panicked: the doctors had previously told us Jordan's
body could not take any more chemotherapy. But the news was amazing. The
latest scans showed the leukaemia had disappeared.'
After so many months racked by worry, the family were overjoyed, but
perplexed - as were the doctors.
'They just don't know how it happened,' says Garry. 'They had never
seen this type of leukaemia go into remission.'
Indeed, Jordan was thought to have among the lowest chances of
survival of all the children with whom he was in hospital. Many of those
children have since died.
As Garry puts its simply: 'I don't know how we can be so lucky'.
Spontaneous regression or remission has been reported in many
cancers, but is most often seen in those of the skin, testes and kidney,
as well as in some forms of lymphoma and leukaemia. So what could be
behind these medical miracles?
Spontaneous remission: Peter Crane's
incurable blood cancer disappeared without any treatment
Several reports, including a recent paper in the Netherlands Journal
Of Medicine, have linked a significant number of spontaneous
disappearances of leukaemia to fever caused by serious infections.
Now, scientists believe they understand how this might work. There
are two theories: the first is that an infection serious enough to
provoke a fever response can push the body's immune system into a
high-powered, hypersensitive state.
This helps the patient's immune system detect the fact that cancer
cells are subtly different from normal healthy cells. It then attacks
the tumour cells as though they are infectious invaders.
In everyday life, our immune systems may wipe out many cancer cells
unobtrusively, so we never know we were at risk. But, too often, such
tumour cells can be sufficiently similar to normal ones that they sneak
under the radar of a normally-running immune system and develop into
The other theory is that the high temperature itself attacks and
destroys the cancer.
Tantalisingly, Jordan had a mild fever of 38.1c in the days before
his clear scans. N ow scientists are trying to harness the power of
fever and infection in a controlled way to treat cancer patients.
Researchers in Italy and the U.S., are using the food-poisoning bugs
salmonella and listeria to provoke tumour-killing immune responses.
These bacteria are the chief culprits behind the estimated 850,000
cases of food poisoning each year in Britain, around 500 of which are
lethal. But scientists are using modified forms of the bacteria that do
not cause illness itself.
These are attached to patients' tumour cells in the laboratory,
painting them as 'enemies, which is then primed to begin detecting and
killing all the tumour cells.
It's hoped that the lab tests will soon be extended to patients
Food-poisoning bacteria are being used because the body is primed to
recognise them and set off major alarms at their presence.
Maria Resign, of the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, is
working with neutralised salmonella cells to alert the immune system to
'We did experiments first in mice and then in cancer cells and immune
cells from human patients, and found that the salmonella was
successfully doing exactly the same job in each case,' she says. 'Now we
are ready to go into testing on humans, but we are waiting for
authorisation from Italian regulators.'
Meanwhile, in the U.S., drug company Advaxis is doing similar work,
using a bioengineered form of listeria, to activate the immune system to
combat a broad array of cancers.
Cancer Research UK is helping to fund the company's research trials.
One clinical study is already under way, giving the listeria bug to
women with cervical cancer. The use of food poisoning bugs is the latest
attempt to develop a generation of cancer treatments called
immunotherapy drugs - or 'cancer vaccines'.
The idea is to recruit the body's own immune system to fight tumours.
In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first
immune-stimulating vaccine to treat tumours - Provenge is designed to
prime the body's defences to attack prostate cancer.
Another experimental immunotherapy drug, Ipilimumab, is being
developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb. It showed some positive results in
fighting melanoma in a June trial. Such therapies are still a way off
becoming mainstream medicines, but Peter Johnson, chief clinician at
Cancer Research UK, is optimistic.
'We are starting to see evidence that this may be a sensible approach
to treating cancers,' he says. 'We know that cancers do sometimes
regress when the immune system is stimulated by an infection.'
'The complicated challenge for researchers is to work out how you can
give a broad stimulus to the immune system and achieve a very specific
response - a targeted attack on tumour molecules.
'But we are now seeing, in some cases at least, this kind of thing
being achieved with drugs such as Ipilimumab.'
This and other work is also throwing up a fascinating explanation for
the spiralling numbers of cancers nowadays; it could be that our immune
systems are less on the alert as - thanks to antibiotics, vaccinations
and improved hygiene - we have far fewer infections.
Indeed, now some doctors have gone so far as to suggest we should
intentionally create fevers in cancer patients. Professor Heinz-Uwe
Hobohm, of Berlin's Technical University of Applied Sciences, recently
called for controlled fever to be used as part of chemotherapy regimens.
It may kick-start the body to kick out tumours without patients
having to take cancer-vaccine drugs.
'Today we should be able to induce and control fever much better than
100 years ago,' he wrote in the British Journal Of Cancer. In fact, in
the U.S., Dr Joan Bull, a pioneering oncologist at Memorial
Hermann-Texas Medical Centre in Houston, is already heating cancer
patients' bodies to boost the immune system.
'We're using a temperature you would get with a bad case of the flu,'
says Dr Bull.
Two days after having chemotherapy and immune-boosting drugs,
patients are put into an infra-red 'total-body thermal therapy'
enclosure nicknamed the 'hot box', for eight hours under sedation.
Their temperature is carefully monitored as it is raised from just
under 37c to 40c. 'The fever is giving a startle, a cry for help to the
immune system to say, arm yourself, get out here, do something,' Dr Bull
She believes if the heat can wake up the immune system, her team can
use less chemotherapy and reduce the side-effects which such strong
drugs can wreak. Dr Bull is using the experimental therapy on patients
with hard-totreat pancreatic cancers and smallcell lung cancers.
'Whole-body fever-range thermal therapy is a gentler therapy than
using radiotherapy, which can hit a lot of the body's vital structures,'
she says. 'The fever itself is safe; the patient is sedated, not because
it hurts, but if you've ever had a fever, you know how crabby you get.
We let them sleep.'
It's not clear if baby Grace Woodhead or Peter Crane, like Jordan
Harden, suffered a fever before their clear scan.
Yet whatever the explanation, Jordan's parents are simply grateful to
enjoy days that they never dared to dream they would experience, such as
proudly seeing their boy off to school.
'He has just started his first term,' beams Garry. 'You would not
even know that there has ever been something wrong with him.'
Garry admits, however, that the shadow of cancer has not fully
passed: 'We still worry about him every day.