The prospect of a vaccine that can give protection from breast cancer is an exciting one, but news of the new trials need to be tempered with a realistic outlook – there’s still a long way to go.
Each year more than a million women are diagnosed with breast cancer throughout the world. It is currently the most common cancer in the U.K. & for women the incidence rates have increased by fifty per cent over the last twenty five years. In the U.K. approximately twelve thousand women & seventy men die each year as a result of the disease.
Many people reading the headlines this week will have felt a surge of hope at the prospect of finally combating one of the world’s biggest killers. Research carried out in America & published in the journal Nature Medicine, has shown that a vaccine containing a protein present in most human breast cancers - alpha-lactalbumin (a-lactalbumin) - injected into mice which have been bred to develop breast cancer was effective in preventing the disease.
Vincent Tuohy, from the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute – the immunologist who led the study - said: “We believe that this vaccine will someday be used to prevent breast cancer in adult women in the same way that vaccines have prevented many childhood diseases.
“If it works in humans the way it works in mice, this will be monumental. We could eliminate breast cancer.”
In the study half of the mice were injected with a vaccine containing a-lactalbumin & half were injected with a control solution. None of the mice injected with the vaccine containing a-lactalbumin went on to develop breast cancer, whilst all the mice given the control solution did. The vaccine was also shown in a separate experiment to slow the growth of existing tumours.
The vaccine is unique in targeting the cancer formation itself rather than a virus, which is how the existing vaccines for cervical & liver cancer work, respectively immunising against the human papilloma virus & the Hepatitis B virus. Joseph Crowe, MD, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Breast Centre. Said “Dr. Tuohy is not a breast cancer researcher, he’s an immunologist, so his approach is completely different - attacking the tumour before it can develop. It’s a simple concept, yet one that has not been explored until now.”
As the a-lactalbumin protein is present in the breast tissue of women who are producing milk, a vaccine containing it would be unsuitable for women who are either pregnant or likely to be. The researchers conclude that, “a-lactalbumin vaccination may provide safe and effective protection against the development of breast cancer for women in their post child bearing, pre menopausal years, when lactation is readily avoidable and risk for developing breast cancer is high”
The new research is exciting, but further research is required before it can be considered safe enough for human trials to begin. It has been reported that human trials might begin as early as next year, but the need for long trials on large numbers of women, mean that it could be ten years or more before the vaccine might become available if indeed it proves to be as promising as the initial hype suggests. Dr Caitlin Palframan - policy manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer – said, This research could have important implications for how we might prevent breast cancer in the future.
“However, this is an early stage study, and we look forward to seeing the results of large-scale clinical trials to find out if this vaccine would be safe and effective in humans.
“Crucially, there are already things that women can do to reduce their breast cancer risk including reducing alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy weight and taking regular exercise.”