Cancer Vaccine Progress

Vaccines have virtually eliminated many deadly or debilitating diseases, and scientists are trying to replicate this success by developing effective cancer vaccines.

Cancer begins when something alters the process of DNA sequencing within genes, which blocks the instructions that tell a cell to produce a normal version of itself. This alteration is a mutation. Mutations can cause certain genes to become cancerous, and disable others from suppressing tumors. Researchers at the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) describe these mutated cells as "a veritable gallery of cellular horrors."

Cancer cells are normal cells in our body gone awry, so the immune system, which protects us from harm, doesn't recognize them as dangerous as it would a virus, for example. Therefore, it doesn't attack the cancer cells, allowing them to grow unchecked. Furthermore, cancer cells are adept at protecting themselves, so any potential vaccine must also overcome these protective mechanisms.

Cancer Vaccine Progress
Vaccines are medicines that boost the immune system. Many scientists capitalize on the idea that, with help, the immune system can learn to attack cancer, and researchers are exploring ways to develop effective cancer vaccines. Cancer prevention vaccines target things that cause or contribute to the development of cancer. Cancer treatment vaccines aim to prevent a recurrence of cancer.

Some potential vaccines use antigens, which are foreign substances capable of eliciting an immune response, to make tumor cells visible to the immune system so it will attack them. The CRI gives the analogy that antigens are to immune cells what a red cloth is to a mad bull.

At the Mayo Clinic, one research team is developing a vaccine that, at least in mouse models, seems to reduce tumors that mimic 90 percent of breast and pancreatic cancers, including those resistant to treatment. They found that cancer cells produce different carbohydrate structures than normal cells, so this potential vaccine trains the immune system to distinguish and kill cancer cells based on their carbohydrate profile.

Another team at the clinic is taking bits of genetic code from healthy tissue, inserting it into cultured virus cells, and reintroducing it into mice as a vaccine. Since the immune system recognizes a virus as dangerous, it attacks the virus and the cancer cells.

If laboratory research continues to produce positive results, the studies may progress to clinical trials with humans. You can help. If you have cancer, you may want to ask your oncologist about donating tumor specimens for use in cancer vaccine research.



Mayo Clinic. "Scientists Develop Vaccine That Successfully Attacks Breast Cancer in Mice." Web. 13 December 2011.

Mayo Clinic. "Researchers Use Human Vaccine to Cure Prostate Tumors in Mice." Web. 19 June 2011.

Mayo Clinic. "Training the Immune System to Fight Cancer." Discovery's Edge. Web. July 2011.

Dzivenu, Oki K., Phil, D., and O'Donnell-Tormey, Jill, Ph.D. "Cancer and the Immune System: The Vital Connection." Cancer Research Institute. Web. 2003.