The second leading cause of death is cancer, just behind cardiovascular disease. Because this disease is a serious public health problem, scientists have tirelessly worked to develop prevention and treatment measures. Many researchers have worked for years to develop vaccines that prevent cancer, especially for breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer.
An American woman is at an average risk of developing breast carcinoma at some time in her life. It is approximately 13% According to the American Cancer Society. There are, however, specific gene mutations that increase a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer. Your chances of developing breast carcinoma by having a BRCA mutation can increase your chances by as much as 45% to 85% Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Penn Medicine has done a groundbreaking study to help women at high risk of developing breast cancer. This is the leading cause of death in the United States.
RELATED: Top Breast Cancer Symptoms That Aren’t Lumps
The trial will be focused on early intervention in BRCA1 breast cancers and BRCA2 to alter their normal progression. The trial will examine whether vaccination of individuals with BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations that put them at greater risk of developing breast cancer or recurrence, lowers their chance of developing it.
These trials are likely to be successful. Penn Medicine is not alone in exploring the efficacy of a cancer vaccine, although it may seem like a revolutionary approach.
A Cancer Vaccine Isn’t Science Fiction
While cancer vaccines are available, their effectiveness is different from the ones Penn Medicine is currently developing. For example, HPV vaccines can prevent cervical cancer by targeting HPV strains which are responsible for tumor formation. In spite of the HPV vaccines’ effectiveness, cancer is rarely caused by viruses, so enabling the body to identify tumor cells would be invaluable for other types of cancer.
Researchers are now focusing their efforts on reducing the likelihood of cancer recurrence for those who have already been diagnosed. Many new treatments are now able to train the immune system and recognize and destroy cancer cells.
As a last resort, immunotherapy can be used to treat advanced diseases that have metastasized. Some medical professionals are using vaccines earlier with some success in training the immune system against lung, skin and kidney cancers to prevent their recurrence.
In the case of breast cancer, it’s a different story.
The Breast Cancer Vaccine: Challenges and Progress
Immunotherapy is not a viable treatment option for breast cancer. “A lot of breast tumors do not attract the immune system, so there is very little in the way of an immune response,”Dr. Robert Vonderheide is the director of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Centre. This is how it works TIME. “That’s where vaccines come in because they are designed to start an immune response that can then be elaborated.”
RELATED:Studies show that half of all women will experience a false positive mammogram
A vaccine’s principal function, according to Vonderheide, is to optimize the immune response by teaching cells to recognize cancer cells as foreign. Vonderheide believes that if this is possible with a breast cancer vaccine it could be possible to not only prevent future cancers but also prevent them from ever developing. Penn Medicine researchers could be close to reaching that goal.
Susan Domchek is researching the safety and efficacy of a vaccine against telomerase. Telomerase is an enzyme that regulates how breast cancer cells divide. Cells that divide quickly, like cancer cells, produce more of telomerase while those that function normally have less.
Potential vaccines could contain DNA fragments that code for key parts of Telomerase. This would allow immune cells, called T cells, to target excessively telomerase-using cell types.
They “stalk the blood to attack and kill those [cancer] cells before anyone even knew they were there,”To explain Dr. Domchek TIME.
Although the trial is promising, Dr. Vonderheide (a collaborator with Domchek) explained that it was crucial to get the T cells to fight the cancer in order to move this breast cancer vaccine forward. “We think the best vaccines for cancer will be those that generated T cells,”He said.
Penn Medicine will be enrolling 16 people with the genetic mutations BRCA1 / BRCA2 as part of this study. These individuals are at greater risk for developing breast cancer. To determine if they have a lower chance of developing cancer, 28 other people at higher risk for genetic disease, but not yet diagnosed with it, will be enrolled in the study. The study will last for two years.
The breast cancer vaccine trial results that showed a lower risk of recurrence and a significant decrease in the likelihood of developing cancer will be hailed as a major victory for cancer research as well as a big step forward for prevention.
Even though we are waiting for new developments, experts recommend that women continue to have routine mammograms, and undergo clinical breast exams, particularly if they’re high-risk.