Cancer vaccines could be on the horizon, say researchers at UW

Apparently, the next big advance in cancer treatment could be a vaccine. There has been limited success in the field that has seen research take place over decades. Scientists though are saying we’ve reached a turning point and more vaccines could be out in the next five years.

Unlike traditional vaccines that prevent disease, some shots for cancer would simply shrink tumors and maybe keep them from coming back. Researchers are looking at potential treatments for breast and lung cancer and several more including melanoma and pancreatic cancer.

“We’re getting something to work. Now we need to get it to work better,” said Dr. James Gulley, who helps lead a center at the National Cancer Institute that develops immune therapies, including cancer treatment vaccines.

For a vaccine to work, it would need to teach the body’s immune system to recognize cancer as dangerous.

Dr. Nora Disis of UW Medicine’s Cancer Vaccine Institute says that relying on T-Cells could be the key to hunting down cancer danger in the body.

“If you saw an activated T-cell, it almost has feet,” Disis said. “You can see it crawling through the blood vessel to get out into the tissues.”

UW Med has been working with several people on trials regarding cancer vaccines.

Kathleen Jade, 50, learned she had breast cancer in late February. She had hoped to leave on an around-the-world trip but ended up having to try the experimental treatment. She says that she is getting the vaccine to see if it will shrink her tumor.

“Even if that chance is a little bit, I felt like it’s worth it,” said Jade, who is also getting standard treatment.

The learning process from prior failures on cancer vaccines appears to have paid dividends with some vaccines advancing towards testing and human trials.

“Vaccines are probably the next big thing in the quest to reduce cancer deaths,” said Dr. Steve Lipkin, a medical geneticist at New York’s Weill Cornell Medicine, who is leading one effort funded by the National Cancer Institute. “We’re dedicating our lives to that.”

The AP is reporting that drugmakers Moderna and Merck are working together to develop a personalized mRNA vaccine for patients with melanoma. There are studies that could begin this year, and the vaccines will be customized to each patient, based on the numerous mutations in their own cancer tissue. A vaccine personalized in this way can train the immune system to hunt for cancer’s mutation fingerprint and kill those cells.

The vaccines under development at UW Med would work for many patients and not just a single patient. Tests are underway for early and advanced breast cancer, lung cancer, and ovarian cancer. Some results may come as soon as next year.

Todd Pieper, 56, from Seattle, is participating in testing to try to shrink his lung cancer tumors. His cancer spread to his brain, but he’s hoping to live beyond the estimates that he had maybe months or weeks to live.

“I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, either for me or for other people down the road,” Pieper said.

Jamie Crase also was one of the first to receive the ovarian cancer vaccine in a safety study 11 years ago. She lives on Mercer Island and was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer when she was 34. The early life diagnosis means that Crase believed she would die young.

Now at age 50, she says she has no sign of cancer, she is uncertain if the vaccine helped but understands that it may have.

“I’m still here,” Crase said.

KIRO 7 reporter Ranji Sinha contributed to this story.

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