Seattle scientists hope to begin human tests this year on one of the first-ever vaccines for breast cancer.
Developed by University of Washington researchers, the vaccine is designed to stop the disease from recurring in many patients who already have been diagnosed and treated. It now is being refined in laboratory animals.
“It uses the body’s own immune system to provide lifelong protection. … It’s sort of like a constant chemotherapy,” said Nora Disis, assistant professor of oncology at the university and one of the principal scientists in the research project.
“The fact that we’ve found immunity to a particular protein means we should be able to immunize” women with breast cancer, said Martin Cheever, UW professor of oncology and the other principal researcher.
Under development for more than three years, the vaccine uses a completely new approach to stopping breast cancer, which this year alone will kill 46,000 Americans and affects one in eight women.
The vaccine takes advantage of a human gene with the unlikely name of HER-2/neu. More specifically, it uses a HER-2/neu-produced protein that causes tumors to flourish.
Up to 40 percent of women with breast cancer, especially young women, produce the protein in excessive amounts.
The game plan with the vaccine: Inject a portion of the protein in the patient to stimulate her immune system to make lots of tumor killers called T cells. Second, use the protein to stimulate growth of the T cells in a laboratory dish and also inject them in the patient.
It works like a charm in rats, causing their immune systems to respond beautifully, Disis and Cheever say. And the rat proteins are identical in structure to those in humans.
What’s more, it also causes the production of antibodies, other parts of the immune system that attack and kill cancer cells.
“This is a whole new ballgame, using the immune system to fight breast cancer,” said Disis. “It’s pretty cool stuff.”
The research is being financed by a $765,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health and $145,000 from The Boeing Co.