The idea of curing breast cancer with a simple therapeutic vaccine instead of surgery and/or months of chemotherapy or radiation is very appealing to patients and breast cancer centers alike. And while we’re not quite there yet scientifically, that certainly is the goal—one that’s within reach.
In the past year, medical powerhouses like the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and MD Anderson have been studying various therapeutic breast cancer vaccines, all showing promise.
The Mayo Clinic is currently working on a breast cancer vaccine for a highly aggressive type called ‘triple negative’, which affects 15-20% of breast cancer patients. It cannot be treated by estrogen blockers like Tamoxifen, as this particular form of breast cancer is not fueled by estrogen. Instead, chemotherapy for this breast cancer type is currently the only treatment option, and that even with chemotherapy, the breast cancer is likely to return and metastasize.
Johns Hopkins is studying experimental breast cancer vaccine in clinical trials as well. This breast cancer vaccine awakens the immune system and teaches lead immune cells to attack breast cancer cells, something the cells do not inherently detect as foreign or dangerous.
The MD Anderson Cancer Center is studying ways to boost the body’s immune system to fight metastatic breast cancer, and to prevent recurrence. Researchers there have taken on hard-to-treat metastatic cancer because of its aggressive nature.
In nearly every cancer center where research is happening (and well funded), breast cancer vaccines are being developed and studied and with good reason. Even with the improved cure rate using current therapies like chemotherapy for breast cancer, experts estimate that more than 200,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year.
The collective mission among breast cancer centers, researchers, patients, survivors and the society as a whole is to wipe out breast cancer entirely. To do that, a second kind of breast cancer vaccine is needed: the preventative vaccine.
Currently, the Cleveland Clinic is studying a breast cancer vaccine that the researchers believe will prevent cancer from occurring in the first place. They have already demonstrated success in mice. The study is now in Phase 1 of FDA clinical trials on its effectiveness on humans. This particular breast cancer vaccine is designed to activate the immune system to attack a type of protein only found in breast cancer tumors.
Experts predict that a successful vaccine will be approved and ready for use in a handful of years, not decades. So while chemotherapy for breast cancer is hardly a therapy of the past, breast cancer vaccine research seems to be paving the way for a world without breast cancer chemotherapy, radiation and most importantly, breast cancer itself.