In 2022, there will be an estimated 1.9 million new cancer cases diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society.
Researchers across the U.S. are currently testing vaccines to treat cancer, including breast cancer.
“Ten, 20 years ago, if you said the immune system could treat cancer, everybody thought you were nuts. We now absolutely know that is true,” said Dr. Susan Domchek, the director of the Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Domchek is part of a team working on a vaccine that could prevent breast cancer from developing in certain patients.
“We’re in the midst of a trial where we’re first vaccinating BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers who have had cancer of any type,” she said. “Then we will start vaccinating BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers who have never had any cancers.”
Vaccines are being tested for more than just breast cancer.
“As a genetics provider, I see a lot of individuals with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, and those women are at extremely high risk for development of breast cancer but also ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and for men prostate cancer as well,” she explained.
Other research groups are also involved in clinical trials.
“mRNA vaccine treatments for cancer are a type of immunotherapy. I think the goal is to use these as therapeutic vaccines to potentially treat cancer which still may be present after a patient has had surgery, and in some way to kind of awaken the immune system to recognize residual cancer,” said Dr. Van Morris, an associate professor in the Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, Division of Cancer Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Morris said they are involved in a clinical trial using vaccines as a way to help prime the immune system to go after residual tumor cells. In this case, the vaccine would be administered after standard treatment is completed.
“These are not preventative vaccines like the standard flu vaccine may be, but rather what we call a therapeutic vaccine, which are designed to treat something that may already be present which, in this case, would be cancer,” said Morris.
Experts are hopeful these trials will make a big difference in the future. The cancer death rate is 158.3 per 100,000 people per year, according to the National Cancer Institute, based on 2013-2017 deaths.
“What we don't know at this point in time is if that will translate into the ultimate long-term goal, which is to kill the cancer and hopefully cure more people and improve survival outcomes for patients with cancer,” said Morris.
“We are talking years from now. We are all working on this. There are many groups working on it and we’re extremely hopeful,” said Domchek.