These Personalized Vaccines Might Mean The End Of Cancer

The phrase "cure for cancer" is practically synonymous with the next great human endeavor. When President Obama announced a national effort to cure cancer in 2016, it recalled nothing so much as JFK's "We choose to go to the Moon" speech. So while the road to a universal cure is still a very long one, it's worthwhile to celebrate the success of this small-scale trial to vaccinate cancer patients and prevent or reverse the disease.

Melanoma cells.

One Shot To Stop Cancer

So what is a vaccine, and how does it work? Basically, when you get your yearly flu shot, you're training your immune system how to defeat the annual mutation of the virus. But the trouble with vaccinating against cancer is that normally, our immune system doesn't want to fight our own mutated cells. Some drug treatments work by disabling a filter in the T cells of the immune system that prevents them from telling friendly cells from foes. But the early trials of this new treatment suggest that you don't have to disable the cells at all — you can train them to hunt down cancerous cells even if they are passing themselves off as harmless. The only thing is, each vaccine has to be personalized to the patient, and that gets unwieldy, fast.

In these preliminary trials, 19 patients with skin cancer were treated with a vaccine based on their unique protein mutations. The result? Their T-cells successfully began targeting the tumors and cancerous cells. But 19 isn't a lot. Larger trials are needed before we get overly optimistic, but when those are carried out, they'll likely come with other benefits. The larger scale the trials, the more we learn about producing these vaccines cheaply and efficiently. We're certainly crossing our fingers over here!

A Beast With Many Heads

What exactly makes cancer so pernicious? As Scientific American noted after Obama's 2016 State of the Union, "Patients and doctors know all too well that cancer is not one disease and there is no singular cure for the complex group of disorders." Cancer is so diverse that it's unlikely even a vaccination-based approach would be appropriate in every case. Even so, this kind of approach, which uses concepts we understand well, could be an important stepping stone to a new family of cancer treatments.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas July 14, 2017

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