Could This Be the End of Cancer?

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, December 19, 2011 | Go to article overview

Could This Be the End of Cancer?

Begley, Sharon, Newsweek

Byline: Sharon Begley

It's a disease that kills millions a year and a slew of hoped-for miracle treatments have gone nowhere. Now scientists say vaccines could hold the key--not just to a cure but to wiping out cancer forever.

By all rights, Shari Baker should have said her final goodbyes years ago. In 2005, more than a year after three doctors dismissed a lump under her arm as a harmless cyst, she was diagnosed with stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer, which takes the lives of at least 80 percent of patients within five years; it killed Elizabeth Edwards in 2010. Half of those diagnosed with breast cancer that has spread--in Baker, it had reached her spine--die within 39 months. But the 53-year-old jewelry designer in Scottsdale, Ariz., wasn't ready to die. "I've been a competitive athlete and a body builder, I take care of myself and eat right," she says. "I was going to fight this."

Baker began searching for a clinical trial, and through the International Cancer Advocacy Network (ICAN) found an intriguing possibility: a cancer vaccine. In May 2006, she traveled to the University of Washington. The vaccine was injected into her upper arm; she got five more shots over the next five months. Today, with scans detecting no cancer anywhere, Baker seems to have beaten some extremely stiff odds.

Short of a sci-fi nano-camera to capture what was going on at the cellular level, it's impossible to know exactly what the vaccine did. But based on studies of lab animals and cells in petri dishes, scientists have a pretty good idea. The vaccine contained fragments of a molecule called her2/neu, which, perched on the surface of tumor cells, fuels the growth and proliferation of some breast cancers. Baker's immune system treated the flood of injected her2/neu like an invading army and mounted a counterattack. Cells called CD4, acting like biological Paul Reveres, sounded the alarm, rousing white blood cells called T cells. The body's Minutemen, they invaded Baker's tumor, summoning reinforcements called cytotoxic ("killer") T cells, which destroyed the tumor cells in Baker's breast as well as her spine. Enough of the other 21 women who received the experimental vaccine against metastatic breast cancer are doing so well that its inventor, immunologist Mary ("Nora") Disis of UW, dares to envision a future in which vaccines "control or even eliminate cancer."

After four decades of largely unfulfilled hopes--Dec. 23 marks 40 years since President Nixon declared war on cancer--scientists have hit on a potential cure that few thought possible a few years ago: vaccines. If they succeed, cancer vaccines would revolutionize treatment. They could spell the end of chemotherapy and radiation, which can have horrific side effects, which tumor cells often become resistant to, and which often make so little difference it would be laughable were it not so tragic: last week, for instance, headlines touted two new drugs for metastatic breast cancer even though studies failed to show that they extend survival by a single day. Vaccines could make such "advances" a thing of the past. And they could make cancer as preventable, with a few jabs, as measles.

"Could" is the key word. Cancer vaccines are still being tested. Patients, doctors, and scientists know only too well that seemingly wondrous cancer therapies can flame out. But progress is accelerating. In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever tumor vaccine, called Provenge, to treat prostate cancer. Scores of other vaccines are in the pipeline. Over the summer, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania unveiled what they call a cancer "breakthrough 20 years in the making": a vaccine against chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that has brought about remissions of up to a year and counting--and which its inventors believe can be tweaked to attack lung cancer, ovarian cancer, myeloma, and melanoma. Vaccines against pancreatic and brain cancer are also being tested. …

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