SEATTLE, June 26 (AP) — The next big advance in cancer treatment could be a vaccine.
After decades of limited success, scientists say research has reached a tipping point, with many predicting more vaccines will be rolled out within five years.
These are not traditional vaccines that prevent disease, but vaccines that shrink tumors and stop cancers from coming back. The targets of these experimental treatments include breast and lung cancers, with progress reported this year in deadly skin cancers, melanoma and pancreatic cancer.
“We’re working on something. Now we need to make it work better,” said Dr. James Gurley, who helps lead a National Cancer Institute center that develops immunotherapies, including vaccines for cancer treatment.
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Scientists understand better than ever how cancer evades the body’s immune system. Like other immunotherapies, cancer vaccines boost the immune system to find and kill cancer cells. Some newer vaccines use mRNA, which was developed for cancer but first for a COVID-19 vaccine.
For a vaccine to work, it needs to teach the immune system’s T cells to recognize the dangers of cancer, said Dr. Nora Desis of the Cancer Vaccine Institute at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. After training, T cells can move anywhere in the body to hunt down danger.
“If you see an activated T cell, it almost has feet,” she said. “You can see it crawl through blood vessels and into tissues.”
Patient volunteers are critical to this research.
Kathleen Jade, 50, learned she had breast cancer in late February, just weeks before she and her husband were due to leave Seattle to travel the world. Instead of sailing the 46-foot Shadowfax boat across the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway, she sat in a hospital bed waiting for the third dose of the experimental vaccine. She’s getting the vaccine to see if it shrinks her tumor before surgery.
“Even if the chances are small, I feel it’s worth it,” said Jed, who is also receiving standard care.
Advances in therapeutic vaccines are fraught with challenges. The first drug, Provenge, was approved in the US in 2010 to treat prostate cancer that had spread. It involves processing a patient’s own immune cells in the lab and returning them intravenously. There are also therapeutic vaccines for early-stage bladder cancer and advanced-stage melanoma.
Olja Finn, a vaccine researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said early cancer vaccine research has stalled as the cancer overcame and outlasted patients’ fragile immune systems.
“We learned a lot from all these failed experiments,” Finn said.
So she’s now focusing on patients with early-stage disease, since the experimental vaccine doesn’t help those with more advanced disease. Her team is planning a vaccine study in women with a low-risk, noninvasive form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ.
More vaccines to prevent cancer may also be on the horizon. The decades-old hepatitis B vaccine protects against liver cancer, and the HPV vaccine, introduced in 2006, protects against cervical cancer.
In Philadelphia, Dr. Susan Domchek, director of the Bathur Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, is recruiting 28 healthy people with BRCA mutations to test the vaccine. These mutations increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The idea is to kill abnormal cells before they cause problems. She likens it to regularly weeding a garden or wiping a whiteboard.
Others are developing vaccines to prevent cancer in people with precancerous lung nodules and other genetic disorders that increase cancer risk.
In the quest to reduce cancer deaths, “vaccines could be The next big thing.” “We’re dedicating our lives to this.”
People with hereditary Lynch syndrome have a 60 to 80 percent lifetime risk of developing cancer. Recruiting them for cancer vaccine trials was easy, said Dr. Eduardo Vilar-Sanchez of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who is leading two government-funded studies of Lynch-related cancer vaccines.
“Patients embraced this in a surprising and positive way,” he said.
Drugmakers Moderna and Merck are jointly developing a personalized mRNA vaccine for melanoma patients, with a large study due to begin this year. These vaccines are tailored to the numerous mutations in each patient’s cancer tissue. A vaccine personalized in this way could train the immune system to look for the cancer’s mutational fingerprint and kill those cells.
But such a vaccine would be expensive.
“Essentially every vaccine has to be made from scratch. If it’s not personalized, the vaccine could be made as cheaply as the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Dr. Patrick Otter of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
The vaccine being developed at Washington University School of Medicine is designed to work for many patients, not just a single patient. Tests are underway for early and advanced breast, lung and ovarian cancers. Some results may be available as soon as next year.
Todd Pieper, 56, from suburban Seattle, is involved in testing a vaccine designed to shrink lung cancer tumors. His cancer has spread to the brain, but he hopes to live until next year to see his daughter graduate from nursing school.
“I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, neither for myself nor for anyone else in the future,” Peeper said of his decision to volunteer.
Eleven years ago, Jamie Crase of nearby Mercer Island was one of the first to undergo a study into the safety of an ovarian cancer vaccine. Diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer at age 34, Klaas thought she would die young and made a will bequeathing one of her favorite necklaces to her best friend. Now that she is 50 and shows no signs of cancer, she still wears the necklace.
She’s not sure if the vaccine will help, “but I’m still here.” (AP)
(This is an unedited and auto-generated story from a syndicated news feed, the latest staff may not have modified or edited the body of content)