Breast Cancer Vaccine: High Hopes, Realistic Expectations

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Does the national media report “real” news about breast cancer? Or are “hot” news stories simply an attempt to capture viewers and readers? Truthfully, it’s a bit of both. A recent story on a new breast cancer vaccine probably falls in the second category: at present, more hype than reality. Still, with all the breast cancer vaccine stories that have come and gone over the years, each one means we’re closer to the goal… a way to protect women from breast cancer.

    A breast cancer vaccine sounds too good to be true. “I can be vaccinated against breast cancer, just like tetanus and polio? Sign me up!”

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    In fact, it’s not true – yet. Despite the fact that stories on a promising new breast cancer vaccine pop up regularly in the national media – including one several weeks ago covered by both CBS News, and The Washington Post – there’s no evidence that we’re close to producing a vaccine to protect women against breast cancer.

    But continuing research does add to the data scientists have been accumulating over the decades, as they search for such a vaccine. After all, the vaccines for mumps, diphtheria, smallpox, and other ravaging diseases didn’t come out of nowhere; they came after years of false trails, dead ends, and failure. All of which showed scientists what NOT to do, as they gradually discovered what worked.

    Current breast cancer vaccine research is much like that. A researcher begins by theorizing a way to goad our bodies into self-protecting against breast cancer. S/he sets experiments in motion (if there’s money available, which is often a project’s first and largest challenge).

    But time after time, what this scientist imagines hits a brick wall – in the test tube, in mice, or simply in the researcher’s head. And s/he starts again, with a new theory.

    The study CBS and The Washington Post highlighted last month involves vaccinating women diagnosed with very early, non-invasive cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ, DCIS) with a substance that forces their white blood cells to recognize a protein produced by cancer cells; and to attack cells carrying that protein.

    The study has progressed beyond animal research, and is being conducted with a small number of women who’ve agreed to be part of the trial. This is indeed promising; much research founders way before it gets to human testing.

    Still, major hurdles need to be passed; and it takes years to complete the process of bringing a drug to market, even after its effectiveness is proved.

    Three days before news of the most recent “vaccine breakthrough” hit the air on CBS, the journal Clinical Cancer Research published initial results from a National Cancer Institute study on a promising breast cancer vaccine. This study involves just 26 women; and it’s a therapeutic vaccine, meaning it’s given to women who already have breast cancer, to try to prevent its spread.

    The good news is, the vaccine seems to be working.

    The “bad” news is… well, no news. Unless you’re an inveterate reader of obscure scientific journals, you never saw the story.

  • How many of you read or heard about this vaccine, compared to the one featured on CBS News? Yet how important is it in the race for a cure? Probably just as important as the study you saw on TV.

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    Bottom line: You may choose to believe everything you hear on the news. But pair that belief with a dose of reality: what you hear is only the tip of a very large research iceberg. A breast cancer vaccine won’t be hitting your doctor’s office anytime soon – but it’s definitely in the works.

Published On: December 01, 2011