Creating a fully-functional vaccine that can stop cancer before it spreads has been near the top of medical researchers’ wish lists for some time. On February 15, 2018, a team of Stanford medical researchers came as close as they have ever done.
The researchers modified the patients’ cells, and then used those to inoculate the patients against cancer. Their results, published in the Cell Stem Cell medical journal, describe a vaccine that successfully treated cancer in mice.
One of the authors of the study, titled “Autologous iPSC-Based Vaccines Elicit Anti-tumor Responses In Vivo”, is Dr. Joseph C. Wu, of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University. Dr. Wu explained the treatment.
According to Dr. Wu, the team used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to train the immune system to fight cancers. These iPSCs are adult cells that have been treated to not only resemble but effectively transform into embryonic stem cells. Because they share protein imprints with cancer cells, iPSCs make great cannon fodder for training the body’s immune system to kill new cancer cells.
Mice treated with an iPSC vaccine were able to successfully fight these cancers:
- Mesothelioma (lung cancer)
- Melanoma (skin cancer)
- Breast cancer
The team is optimistic that these vaccines would work for a great variety of cancers beyond the ones already tested. The result gives the experts great hope that vaccines could be developed that at-risk patients can take to ward off future cancerous growths.
The research on cancer vaccines comes at a time when medical science has shed more light on cancer risk factors.
A report by the American Society of Clinical Oncology shows that about 50% of U.S. cancer deaths could be avoided by preventive adjustments. This advice goes beyond mere lifestyle changes, however, because it quantifies the risks based on medical studies.
Tobacco and cigarette smoking, for example, has been proven to increase the risk of lung cancer. Now the Society reveals that smoking e-cigarettes increases the likelihood of smoking regular cigarettes that cause cancer. People between 14 and 30 who smoked e-cigarettes were 3.6 times more likely to begin smoking regular cigarettes. This behavior inevitably leads to higher risks of developing cancer. In addition, the report indicates that smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, and water pipes themselves inherently cause cancer.
Another risk factor is exposure to UV radiation. Women who began tanning before the age of 30 have a 30% higher chance of developing melanomas. The risk increases with the frequency of tanning sessions.
Alcohol is another risk factor about which data has now emerged. According to the Society’s report, about 5% to 6% of all cancer cases and deaths worldwide are attributable to alcohol. Not only does excessive alcohol consumption lead to cancer but it can also reduce the effectiveness of treatments.
Cancer Trails Heart Disease As America’s Second-Leading Cause Of Death
Cancer is one of the leading mortality causes around the world. According to statistics by the National Cancer Institute, about 39.6% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer over the course of their lives. The most commonly encountered cancers include:
- Breast cancer
- Lung cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Skin melanoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
Cancer remains a dire threat around the world. Statistical forecasts indicate that cancer cases will rise to 21 million in 2030. This is a 50% rise from a baseline of 14 million cases recorded in 2012. Deaths are forecast to rise 60% from 8 million to 13 million.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States
Data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that cancer and heart diseases are the leading killers in the United States.
Heart disease is just ahead of cancer, with 634,000 mortalities annually to cancer’s 596,000. Like cancer, heart disease has complex variations and causes, from genetic dispositions to environmental and lifestyle risk factors.
Heart ailments include:
- Coronary artery disease, including plaque buildup that blocks blood flow
- Valvular heart disease
- Arrhythmias that disturb heart functioning
- Cardiomyopathy that interrupt the pumping of the heart
Heart disease shares some of the same risk factors with certain cancers, but presents challenges all its own. Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
The two diseases contribute to a challenging health burden for the U.S., far outpacing other mortality causes.
The data shows that cancer remains a major public health problem. This is the case not just in the U.S., but around the world. According to the World Health Organization, cancer is also the second leading cause of death worldwide. Globally, about 1 in 6 deaths are due to cancer. In addition, 70% of cancer mortalities occur in low-income and middle-income countries.
Despite the challenges, efforts to combat cancer, such as through treatment research, are bearing fruit. Data from the SEER Cancer Statistics Review shows that cancer death rates have declined in the U.S.
Between 2004 and 2013, cancer death rates decreased by 13% and have continued to decrease since then.
Genetic Research Offers Big Wins In Fight Against Cancer
Key breakthroughs against cancer have come in recent years thanks to efforts at fundamental research.
One of the most promising avenues for new cancer treatments is the field of gene therapy. Scientists such as those at Stanford are conducting stem cell research to alter the patient’s genetic ability to fight cancers.
Notable breakthroughs in 2017 include the approval of T-cell gene therapy treatments that use gene modifications. Novartis, one of the drug companies in the field, gained approval on August 30 for Kymriah, a genetic therapy for leukemia. Gilead Sciences, another pharmaceutical company, followed suite with Yescarta, another gene therapy for B-cell lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
Both of these treatments, like the Stanford research, use a patient’s own cells to fight cancerous growths in the body. The rapid succession of promising applications for gene therapy indicate opportunities in modifying the body’s genes to fight disease at the root.
What The Future Holds For Cancer Treatment
New vaccines and gene therapy treatments hold great potential for treating certain kinds of cancer. The American Society of Clinical Oncology outlines the important advances in a report titled Clinical Cancer Advances 2018.
Cancer Occurrence Around The World. Source: American Association For Cancer Research
Using Stapled Peptides To Target Undruggable Molecular Targets
A new trend in cancer treatment going forward is the use of stapled peptides to target undruggable molecular targets. Current medicines can only target about 20% of known cancer proteins. The rest of the proteins are “undruggable”, meaning no known substance can penetrate and kills those cells. New stapled peptides contain a modified molecule that allows them to penetrate such proteins.
Eliminating Premalignant Cells On The Basis Of Their Molecular Characteristics
Another promising development is the use of precision medicine to eliminate cancer cells in their nascent stage. The idea is to use genetic signatures of early cancer cells to target them before they are fully developed.
This has led to the development of vaccine-based approaches that healthy people can take to prevent the future occurrence of cancer. The Stanford research by Dr. Joseph Wu in this story is one such attempt at creating a workable vaccine.
Disparities In Cancer Treatment Persist Around The World And Within Countries
Advances in cancer treatment have not, however, impacted all countries equally. Neither has access to them been equally distributed within countries and societies.
The report notes that cancer cases increased 33% between 2005 and 2015. About 70% of cancer deaths, however, now occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, where cancer treatment options are limited.
Within higher income nations such as the U.S., socioeconomic, class and racial disparities in cancer survival rates continue to pose a problem. In addition, the high cost of care presents a big challenge for those who cannot pay for it.