Cancer vaccines: Medicine’s next big thing?

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CLEVELAND (Ivanhoe Newswire) – One in eight women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Each year, 22,000 will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. And, one man in 36 will die of prostate cancer.

Right now we treat cancer once it shows up. But that could all change.

“We’ve known for over 100 years that our immune system can protect us from cancer,” Vincent Tuohy, PhD, Immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Tuohy is one of just a handful of researchers developing vaccines to prevent cancer.

“These are diseases that we think can be controlled not just by offense, not just by treatment, which is the current paradigm, but by defense,” he said.

In the lab, he’s come up with a way to prevent tumors by using retired proteins in the body. If the vaccine targets proteins that are no longer present in normal tissues but are present in tumors — tumors cannot grow. The body essentially becomes immune to the targeted cancer.

“It’s immune software. It’s a way of programming your immune system to protect you and keep you healthy,” Dr. Tuohy explained. “What we want to do is increase our probability. We want to get the head start on these tumors.”

The researchers are working on vaccines for prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers. The next step is to test the vaccines in humans, and if they work, prevention could be the key to stopping these cancers from even getting started.

Dr. Tuohy says he hopes to enroll patients in a phase one trial for testing a breast cancer vaccine in the next year or so. The vaccine would be injectable and would likely be tested eventually on women who are at a high-risk for developing breast cancer.

CANCER: Cancer is one of the deadliest and most common diseases. Cancer develops when damaged cells rapidly divide and multiply, which can form lumps or tumors. These masses often affect circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems, disrupting the functioning of these systems. Signs and symptoms will vary depending on where the cancer is. Treatment will also depend on the location of the cancer and the severity of the disease. (Source: and

TUMORS: A tumor, known as neoplasm, is an irregular mass of cells that are classified as benign, pre-malignant, or malignant. A benign tumor is a non-cancerous mass that cannot spread throughout the body. Pre-malignant tumors are often known as pre-cancerous tumors, meaning there is a good chance that they will develop into cancer cells. A malignant tumor is a cancer tumor that grows and makes the cancer worse. In some cases, these tumors cause fatalities in patients with very little notice. These types of tumors are known to spread and multiply at a quicker rate than other cells. (Source:

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic are using an idea called the retired protein hypothesis to hopefully one day be able to develop a preventative vaccine for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. Essentially, the retired protein hypothesis uses our body’s own immune system to attack tumors and cancerous cells. As we age, certain proteins in our body stop being expressed in normal tissue. But if a tumor develops, the proteins will be expressed in those. Researchers are hoping a vaccine can help aim our body’s natural defensive mechanisms to target these proteins, which are no longer present in healthy tissue but only in cancerous tissue. Doctors have been working for 11 years on research and development, and according to Dr. Vincent Tuohy, have done nearly all of the animal research they need, and are moving on to pre-clinical testing soon. (Source: Dr. Vincent Tuohy)

Vincent Tuohy, Ph.D., Professor, Immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, talks about a potential for a cancer vaccine.

Are you trying to create a vaccine that will wipe out breast cancer for good?

Dr. Tuohy: That’s the ultimate goal. My work on this goes back to 2002 when we realized that there was no preventive vaccine for breast cancer or for any of the adult onset cancers that we engage as we age. There's a giant deficiency in our health care. This is the kind of lack of awareness that most people have. We have a wonderful vaccine program that protects us as children from diseases caused by 16 different pathogens. And then it ends in our teens. That whole primary vaccination program ends. All we get thereafter are the annual influenza and booster shots against varicella for shingles and against pneumococcus, tetanus, diphtheria and things like that as we age. There’s no primary vaccination against breast cancer. We think we can control cancer not just by offense, not just by treatment which is the current paradigm, but by defense. We’re trying to develop immune defenses against adult onset cancers, like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. These are the three that we’re trying to target because of the great need.

Aren’t those vaccines different though? You can’t catch cancer?

Dr. Tuohy: Yes you can. You don’t catch it as an infectious disease necessarily, but you get it. One out of six men get prostate cancer, one out of eight women get breast cancer. They’re ‘catching’ it. The amazing statistic to me is that 70% of cases of breast cancer occur in women that have absolutely no risk factors whatsoever. They don’t have a family history, they’re in good shape, they work out, they eat well, they’re not obese, they don’t drink, they don’t smoke.

So what’s your approach to creating a vaccine?

Dr. Tuohy: It’s called the ‘retired’ protein hypothesis. As we age there are proteins that are no longer expressed in normal tissues with age. If we can target these proteins, if we can aim the immune system at these proteins and they're no longer there with age, nothing happens. We have immunity to that protein but it's not there so nothing happens, the normal tissue is undamaged. But these proteins return; they come back in rejuvenated, younger tissues called tumors. And when they do, we have pre-emptive immunity, but it doesn't do anything because the proteins are no longer expressed in the normal tissue but they emerge in the rejuvenated tumor tissue. It's as if we're aiming at a ghost and nothing happens. But when the ghost returns as a demon in a tumor it's killed.

So the protein fuels the cancer?

Dr. Tuohy: No, the protein has nothing to do with the cancer at all it's just that it's a way for us to target the cancer. The cancers happen. Tumors make mistakes. We're taking advantage of these mistakes that tumors make. There are things that we can aim our immune system at, they make mistakes.

How far away are you from a vaccine?

Dr. Tuohy: We've done eleven years of preclinical testing. We've done a lot of animal work. We think we've probably completed most of the animal work that we need, the preclinical work we call it, that the FDA requires. We think that we can apply this year for what's called an investigational new drug, or IND. We plan on setting up a meeting with the FDA sometime this year and getting permission to test the vaccine in women.

How do you prove a vaccine works? It seems like a lifetime process?

Dr. Tuohy: A lifetime? I don't think so. I think a long process, yes. I think there's no way we could get this to the general public within ten years; ten years is the least it would take. We have to wait and see in a large cohort of patients whether or not it inhibited the emergence of this breast cancer and that often takes years to see. And then we have to follow-up with women to make sure it's safe. The FDA is going to make sure that they're not putting anything on the market that isn't safe. It's a long, long process that most people don't understand.

Who do you target for the testing though?

Dr.Tuohy: There are high risk populations that we can go after; high risk populations for triple negative breast cancers. We anticipate that it will be fast tracked because it's essentially an orphan disease in the sense that there's no targeted therapy for it. There's nothing for the disease other than standard of care andchemotherapy.

So the vaccine would it be oral or would it be a shot? And would it be something you get once in your life when you're eighteen years old?

Dr.Tuohy: No this will be an injectable vaccine. We don't know how many times and it probably won't be at that young age.

I guess the future is here, right?

Dr. Tuohy: The future is here and I think the future is in the dreams we have today.

This information is intended for additional research purposes only. It is not to be used as a prescription or advice from Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. or any medical professional interviewed. Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. assumes no responsibility for the depth or accuracy of physician statements. Procedures or medicines apply to different people and medical factors; always consult your physician on medical matters.