cancer, cancer vaccine

Houston Medical Center Working On Potential Cancer Breakthrough

The medical community has been working toward attainable vaccines for cancer for the better part of a century.

The medical community has been working toward attainable vaccines for cancer for the better part of a century, and according to the Houston Chronicle, a breakthrough appears to be on the cusp. Dr. William Decker, a lead at a Baylor College of Medicine lab currently in multiple trials for cancer vaccines, is hopeful that the future for a cancer vaccine is bright.

Decker told the Chronicle, “I’d say that if I’ve done my job, and others like me have done their jobs, 25 years from now, everybody’s getting a vaccine.”

Although the current vaccines being developed are not cancer vaccines, they are, at least, cancer-related. As the Chronicle reported, the vaccines are designed to shrink tumors and keep cancer from returning. Cancer cells, however, present a different challenge to vaccinating as they work differently from an illness like the flu. According to Dr. Hussein A. Tawbi, deputy chair of the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, cancer cells put out receptors that stop the immune system from doing its job.

Tawbi told the Chronicle, “In a decent proportion of patients, there is always kind of a ‘tug of war’ between the immune system and the tumor,” Tawbi said. “The tumor basically puts up a stop sign.”

However, during the past 20 years, the development of immune checkpoint inhibitors through immunotherapy has created a way around those stop signs, according to Tawbi. The development of mRNA technology, such as the one that led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to other developments such as bioinformatics that have allowed scientists to map the genetic sequence of tumors, has created hope in the scientific community that a vaccine could be around the corner.

Due to its network of hospitals, colloquially known as the Medical Center, Houston is taking center stage in developing medical research around cancer technologies.

Decker used the analogy of a play on Broadway as he told the Chronicle, “If you’re a biomedical scientist or physician, being in the Texas Medical Center is like being an actor in New York City and playing on Broadway. You’d rather be second-from-the-left on Broadway than playing the lead in Kalamazoo.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center, the nation’s foremost cancer hospital, is one of the sites for a Phase 3 trial for an mRNA vaccine being co-developed by Moderna and Merck. The vaccine showed promising results during Phase 2 of its development, where, along with an immunotherapy called Ketruda, the vaccine reduced the risk of re-occurrence or death by 44% in patients who had tumors surgically removed. The treatment also reduced the chance of the cancer spreading to another part of the body by 65%, which, according to Dr. Tawbi, was the result they were hoping for. 

Dr. Tawbi also said that even though the initial results are promising, more work must be done before a vaccine for any cancer is ready. The type of cancer they are currently working with is melanoma, a cancer that the body can more easily recognize. Even with that, Tawbi told the Chronicle, “It is a new approach, and so I think expectations of everything being highly successful on the first run is not necessarily realistic. We may encounter different roadblocks.”

Even so, the research being done in Houston creates hope that a vaccine for cancer will one day become a reality for patients. At a different trial in Seattle, patients indicated that their participation means a lot to them.

Todd Pieper, a 56-year-old from Seattle, described his choice to participate in a clinical trial to NBC Bay Area, saying, “I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, either for me or for other people down the road.”

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