Breast cancer vaccines are nothing new

4 Nov
Dorothy Hagmajer is a sophomore studying public relations at the University of Florida. This story confirmed her interest in health sciences and sparked an interest in health reporting. Hagmajer considers herself a novice writer, but expert dog-petter.

Dorothy Hagmajer is a sophomore studying public relations at the University of Florida. This story confirmed her interest in health sciences and sparked an interest in health reporting. Hagmajer considers herself a novice writer, but expert dog-petter.

 

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of contributing bloggers beginning their careers as journalists/public relations professionals at the University of Florida. Please see my earlier post about getting journalists excited about science writing early on.

 

By Dorothy Hagmajer 

“Am I going to die?”

That was Susan Foster’s first question when her doctor told her she had breast cancer.

Thirty-nine radiation treatments and nine chemotherapy treatments later, Foster had her answer.

In 2013, an estimated 232,000 American women are asking themselves that same question, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, surpassed only by lung cancer.

It’s facts like these that have spurred the search for a breast cancer vaccine.

Recently, a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio set 2015 as a tentative year for the beginning of clinical trials on a vaccine they developed, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The vaccine is intended to create an immune response triggered by certain proteins expressed only in breast tumors – specifically, alpha-lactalbumin, according to research published in 2010 in Nature Medicine.

The protein is typically expressed during late pregnancy and lactation, and appears in high amounts in the majority of breast cancer tumors.

Following a series of trials with mice that were genetically predisposed to grow mouse breast tumors, the vaccine appears to be ready for its first steps to becoming a reality.

Sort of.

For one, the idea for a breast cancer vaccine isn’t anything novel. Other researchers have attempted to develop a vaccine by vaccinating against different proteins typically expressed in the breast cancer tumors.

In 2011, researchers from the Mayo clinic were in the process of developing a vaccine against MUC1 (a protein found in cancer cells’ surfaces) that promised to dramatically reduce tumors, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Coy D. Heldermon, an oncologist with expertise in the treatment of breast cancer at the Center for Pediatric Neuromuscular and Orphan Diseases at the University of Florida, cautions against labeling this as a definitive method of breast cancer prevention any time soon.

“You have to go through the Phase One safety studies, the Phase Two efficacy studies and the Phase Three studies that show it’s better than anything we have now, or at least as effective,” Heldermon said. “The time from going into humans and to being approved in humans is on average 10 years.”

That is provided that there are no bad side effects or reactions. If those manifest themselves, the 10 years could extend.  For now, patients must be content with chemotherapy and its alternatives.

“We’ve developed a lot of endocrine therapies now, so your options aren’t only chemotherapy,” Heldermon said. “These are just as effective, if not more so [than chemotherapy]. Endocrine therapy is much better tolerated than chemotherapy.”

Susan Foster, a breast cancer survivor, traveled to France in the summer of 2013.  Photo by Gracie Kupiszewski.

Susan Foster, a breast cancer survivor, traveled to France in the summer of 2013. Photo by Gracie Kupiszewski.

Better tolerance includes a smaller likelihood of vomiting and hair loss, common side effects of the more harsh chemotherapy. Endocrine therapies work by either inhibiting the production of estrogen (the main fuel of breast cancer) or competing for estrogen when it comes to binding in cells.

Of course, improvements in treatment do not lessen the incidence of breast cancer itself. Women should continue to receive regular mammograms even if they are not genetically predisposed to the disease.

“The vast majority of women think, ‘Oh, I have no family history of breast cancer, therefore I don’t have to worry about it,’” said Kim B. Walsh-Childers, a professor at the University of Florida with a background in health issue coverage.

“It is so not true. Seventy percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factor other than being female,” Walsh-Childers said.

For those whose prime risk factor is their own sex, a vaccine would be a dream come true – even for women who have already survived the disease.

“What really made me break down and cry was that (as far as I knew at the time) there was no breast cancer in my family before me,” Foster said. “I was mortified that I was starting a trend. I worried about my two daughters.”

Foster and her daughters are currently cancer-free. When asked to comment on the development of a potential vaccine for breast cancer, Foster paused for a moment. Then, she matter-of-factly summed up what everyone and anyone who had heard of or was involved with any breast cancer vaccine was thinking.

“I hope it works,” Foster said.

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2 Responses to “Breast cancer vaccines are nothing new”

  1. Justin Singh November 4, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    R-O-C-K, You Rock You Rock

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Editor’s picks for 2013 | Layman's Terms Media - December 2, 2013

    […] Breast cancer vaccines are nothing new: By Dorothy Hagmajer   “Am I going to die?”  That was Susan Foster’s first question when her doctor told her she had breast cancer.Continue reading […]

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