Cancer is well understood to be a deadly disease. And while treatment has improved greatly over the last few decades—which means many more people survive getting cancer than in the past—we still don't have a cure.
But we might finally be getting close, thanks to a new treatment being studied at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York that is being referred to as a cancer vaccine.
It doesn't prevent cancer from ever taking hold in a patient, as true vaccines do for diseases such as smallpox or measles. But it does similarly train the human immune system to recognize and attack tumours—this kind of treatment is also known as immunotherapy.
The treatment has only been used on 11 patients so far, but the results have been excellent. All of the patients in the initial tests were diagnosed with a cancer called lymphoma. Lymphoma actually starts in the body's immune system cells, which are found in our lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, and bone marrow. The cancer causes these immune cells to form tumours which grow out of control.
So how does this new cancer vaccine work? Basically, the tumour is given two injections. The first injection recruits dendritic cells to the area. (These guys are the identifier cells of our immune system—the ones that pick our intruders and bad guys in our microscopic midst.) The second injection kicks the dendritic cells into action. As they begin to pick out the cancerous cells, our T cells (the knights of our immune army) finally understand what to attack.
A bright future?
Of course, this is a huge simplification of what is happening. Getting our immune system to attack and kill a cancerous tumour has been next to impossible for ages. Tumours are extremely good at fooling our immune system into thinking that they belong there. This is why treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy (cancer-fighting drugs), and dangerous radiation have been the main ways of attacking cancer.
Aside from a low dose of radiation to help kickstart the process after the first injection, this new treatment is very different. In three of the test subjects, it shrunk the tumours in the body, putting the patients into remission (a state where the cancer has left the body).
While it didn't lead to remission in all of the patients, the results are positive enough that new tests were started in March on not only lymphoma patients, but ones with breast and head-and-neck cancers as well.
So, cancer vaccine? Not quite. But for a disease that is so challenging to treat, any news like this is great news indeed.