A breast cancer cure could come sooner than you think. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, have developed an immunotherapy treatment that trains the immune system to recognize and kill breast cancer cells. Though their research is still in its early stages, they say the treatment is showing positive signs in early-stage clinical trials, and that it could be available to patients in less than a decade.
The vaccine is intended to train the body's immune system to find and kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells, as chemotherapy and radiation does. “It’s supposed to stimulate a patient’s own immune response so that the immune cells like t-cells would go in and attack the cancer,” Saranya Chumsri, MD, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, explained to WLTV.
Not only does the treatment have the potential to stop the recurrence of breast and ovarian cancers, but researchers say it may also prevent them from developing in the first place. Another Mayo Clinic investigator, Keith Knutson, PhD, likened it to a “flu shot against breast cancer.”
Lee Mercker, from Jacksonville, joined the clinical trial for the cancer vaccine in March 2019 after being diagnosed with a very early stage breast cancer. She was the first patient to take the vaccine, which is a series of shots that’s administered over 12 weeks. It worked, successfully killing cancer cells and shrinking her tumor.
This is what researchers hoped the vaccine would do as it developed out, and were pleasantly surprised to see such results in their very first human test subject. Mercker also underwent a double mastectomy to ensure that the cancer was fully out of her body.
The Mayo Clinic is seeing similarly positive results on other patients who are participating in the clinical trial, including some with late stage breast cancer. However, researchers say that before it becomes available to more patients, the vaccine will need to pass the Food and Drug Administration's strict phase 3 trials, which will take at least another three years.
Immunotherapies have become an area of interest among medical researchers who are looking for cancer cures, and Mayo Clinic immunologists have developed two other cancer vaccines for Triple Negative Breast Cancer and HER2 Positive Breast Cancer. They are also working on another that fights against a non-invasive breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ.
"We know that they're safe. We know that they stimulate the immune system [to fight cancer]. We know that they have had a positive impact on ovarian and breast cancer,” Dr. Knutson told Forbes. “We haven't seen any adverse events that are causing problems other than irritation in the area similar to a flu vaccination. Now, we have to convince the FDA, through solid, rigorous clinical trials that we're seeing what we're seeing."
He continued: “It is reasonable to say that we could have a vaccine within eight years that may be available to patients through their pharmacy or their doctor.” Of course, this type of research comes at a cost and it isn't cheap, which is why it's perhaps more important than ever to support breast cancer research and awareness.