Few drug discovery stories have offered researchers as many chances for dismissive disbelief as the one William B. Coley launched with his bacterial lysate treatments for cancer. If, perhaps, he looks down from above, he's probably watching the development of immunostimulatory oligonucleotides with a keen sense of excitement and anticipation. "For who would have thought," marvels Robert L. Bratzler, CEO of Coley Pharmaceuticals Group, "that DNA, which was not supposed to have immune stimulation properties, would be so potent?"

Coley was a New York bone surgeon with an interest in cancer. When he learned of a cancer survivor who coincidentally had suffered severe skin infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, he wondered if the bacteria had caused the patient's tumor to regress. In the 1890s, he began injecting cancer patients with the crude bacterial preparations that became known as Coley's toxins. Coley treated nearly 900 patients, and claimed that...

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