Scientists develop a molecule they say fires up the immune system to fight off cancer cells.
Vaccines are a vital piece of public health because they can train a person’s immune system in preparation for a hostile enemy.
In the book “Deadliest Enemy,” Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, a public health scientist, calls vaccines “the sharpest arrow in our quiver.”
“It’s hard to overstate the impact of vaccines on our history and our lives,” he wrote.
While scientists are currently searching for vaccines to prevent communicable diseases such as HIV infections and staying on top of the latest evolution of the seasonal flu, some scientists are exploring the role vaccines could play in preventing cancer.
Such is the case with the HPV vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 1 in 4 people carry the human papillomavirus (HPV). Most people never develop symptoms or health problems, but in chronic infections the virus can cause certain cancers in both men and women.
The HPV vaccine, experts say, can prevent more than 90 percent of the 33,700 cases of cancer caused by HPV every year in the United States from ever developing.
Mandy Murry, a three-time cancer survivor and a patient advocate for the HPV vaccine, says she still struggled with lymphedema, and her immune system hasn’t made a full recovery.
“If the HPV vaccine would have been available before my cervical cancer diagnosis at 22 years of age, my cancer may have been prevented,” she told Healthline.
But some vaccines could also have curative potential for cases of cancer that already exist.
Recently, researchers announced the findings of early research into an experimental vaccine that could boost the immune system to aid other cancer therapies and even help the body fend off reoccurrence of the cancer.
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Dale Boger, PhD, a Scripps research professor, Dr. Bruce Beutler, a Nobel laureate from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and their team took an existing vaccine and added a molecule they developed called Diprovocim.
The molecule is an adjuvant, or vaccine additive, used to increase the body’s immune response.
In their study, the researchers tested the altered vaccine on a small group of mice with an aggressive form of melanoma.
After 54 days, all of the mice given the cancer vaccine and Diprovocim survived, while all of the mice given only the cancer vaccine had died.
Only a quarter of the mice given the cancer vaccine with an aluminum salt, another common adjuvant the CDC says helps vaccines work better, survived the experiment.
The researchers say Diprovocim drew cancer-fighting cells to the tumors. This leads them to believe the vaccines could help a person better fight off cancer when typical drug therapies aren’t working on their own.
Later, when researchers attempted to restart the cancers in the mice that survived, Boger said “it wouldn’t take” because their immune systems were prepared for the cancer cells to return.
“Just as a vaccine can train the body to fight off external pathogens, this vaccine trains the immune system to go after the tumor,” Boger said in a statement accompanying the research.
Because Diprovocim “is easy to synthesize in the lab and easy to modify,” Beutler and Boger say it makes it “attractive” for use in medicine.
Dhruvajyoti Roy, PhD, director of technology for LAM at IvyGene Diagnostics Inc., agrees that the combination vaccine has potential for clinical development.
He says combination therapies are a key area of clinical research.
“Other researchers have tried various combination strategies to fight aggressive tumors, and it’s important to perform further preclinical tests with this vaccine and study how it works in combination with other cancer immunotherapies,” Roy told Healthline.
“The global cancer vaccines market is growing, and it will strengthen the immune system against different cancers.”
But experiments in a handful of mice are just the early stages of research in finding out if an experimental vaccine is safe and effective in humans.
The researchers say they plan to do further preclinical testing — in the lab using more living organisms that aren’t human — on the newly designed vaccine to see how it works with other cancer treatments.
Some experts say the research shows promising results, but it’s too early to tell if it’s going to be beneficial in humans.
“It is good to remember that the compound has a long path ahead before it is available to patients and that positive results in mice do not always translate to positive results in humans,” David Saxner, a principal at the life science consulting firm Longfellow Associates who previously has worked in evaluating oncology clinical trials, told Healthline.
Still, with promising research and medicines working their way through the development process, Saxner is optimistic about the future of cancer treatments.
Murry says new research suggesting an experimental vaccine may boost the immune system is exciting. While she recognizes some people’s stigmas against vaccines, she says with her “health resume,” she’s pro-vaccination.
“I believe we can eradicate cancers, and we have to start somewhere,” she said.