In a groundbreaking development, scientists believe that the next major advancement in cancer treatment could come in the form of vaccines. After years of limited success, researchers assert that they have reached a turning point in cancer vaccine research, with many predicting that several vaccines will be available within the next five years.
Unlike traditional vaccines that aim to prevent diseases, these experimental cancer vaccines are designed to shrink tumors and prevent cancer from recurring. The focus of these treatments includes breast cancer, lung cancer, melanoma (a deadly form of skin cancer), and pancreatic cancer, with recent advancements reported this year.
Dr. James Gulley, who plays a significant role in the development of immune therapies, including cancer treatment vaccines, at the National Cancer Institute, expressed optimism about the progress made. “We’re getting something to work. Now we need to get it to work better,” he stated.
Scientists have gained a deeper understanding of how cancer evades detection by the body’s immune system. Cancer vaccines, like other forms of immunotherapy, enhance the immune system’s ability to identify and eliminate cancer cells. Some of the latest vaccine candidates even utilize mRNA technology, originally developed for cancer research but first employed in the creation of COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr. Nora Disis of UW Medicine’s Cancer Vaccine Institute in Seattle explained that for a vaccine to be effective, it needs to train the body’s T cells to recognize cancer cells as a threat. Once trained, these T cells can travel throughout the body to seek out and destroy cancerous cells. Dr. Disis likened activated T cells to having “feet” that can be observed crawling through blood vessels to reach tissues. Patient volunteers play a crucial role in advancing this research.
Kathleen Jade, a 50-year-old patient diagnosed with breast cancer, has enrolled in a vaccine trial to assess if the experimental vaccine can shrink her tumor before surgery. Despite the uncertainty, she believes that the chance of success is worth pursuing alongside standard treatment.
Progress in treatment vaccines has faced challenges. The first treatment vaccine, Provenge, was approved in the United States in 2010 for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer. This vaccine involves processing a patient’s immune cells in a laboratory and reintroducing them intravenously. Treatment vaccines are also available for early bladder cancer and advanced melanoma.
Early cancer vaccine research encountered setbacks as cancer cells outsmarted patients’ weakened immune systems. However, the insights gained from these failed trials have paved the way for new approaches. Researchers are now focusing on patients with earlier-stage diseases, as previous experimental vaccines did not show significant benefits for advanced-stage patients. For example, Olja Finn, a vaccine researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is planning a vaccine study targeting women with low-risk, noninvasive breast cancer known as ductal carcinoma in situ.
In addition to treatment vaccines, preventive vaccines against cancer are also on the horizon. Decades-old hepatitis B vaccines have successfully reduced the incidence of liver cancer, while the introduction of HPV vaccines in 2006 has significantly reduced cases of cervical cancer.
Researchers across various institutions are actively recruiting participants for vaccine trials. Dr. Susan Domchek, director of the Basser Center at Penn Medicine, is conducting a vaccine test with 28 healthy individuals carrying BRCA mutations, which increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The goal is to eliminate early abnormal cells before they progress into cancerous growths. Other researchers are developing vaccines to prevent cancer in individuals with precancerous lung nodules and other inherited conditions that elevate cancer risks.
Dr. Steve Lipkin, a medical geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, leading a National Cancer Institute-funded effort, expressed his belief that “vaccines are probably the next big thing” in reducing cancer-related deaths. Dedicated researchers are committed to this pursuit, striving to develop effective and accessible vaccines. For instance, Dr. Patrick Ott of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston highlighted the challenges associated with personalized mRNA vaccines for melanoma, which need to be tailored to each patient’s unique cancer mutations, making production more expensive than non-personalized vaccines like those developed for COVID-19.
At UW Medicine, researchers are focusing on developing vaccines that can benefit a broader range of patients. They are conducting tests for early and advanced breast cancer, lung cancer, and ovarian cancer, with some results expected as early as next year.
Among the patients participating in these trials, Todd Pieper, a 56-year-old from suburban Seattle with lung cancer that has spread to his brain, remains hopeful for a positive outcome. Despite the challenges he faces, he is determined to witness his daughter’s graduation from nursing school next year. Pieper believes that his participation may not only benefit him but also contribute to advancements that can help future patients.
Jamie Crase, a survivor of advanced ovarian cancer who participated in an early safety study for ovarian cancer vaccines 11 years ago, remains cancer-free at the age of 50. While she cannot definitively attribute her recovery to the vaccine, she is grateful for the opportunity it provided. Her experience serves as a beacon of hope in the ongoing fight against cancer.
With ongoing research, increasing patient participation, and the dedication of scientists, cancer vaccines are poised to play a significant role in reducing cancer-related deaths and improving treatment outcomes in the near future.