Many people who have seen the burden that cancer can inflict on loved ones, friends, family members, or even their own body now have some good news from Stanford University School of Medicine.
A hope for a cure for cancer was ignited when a study from the California based university was published on January 31 in Science Translation Medicine. The study specifically targeted cancer cells and had very promising results.
The Study that Sparked Hope
The researchers at Stanford injected a tiny amount of two immune stimulating agents straight into tumors in mice. This concluded with astounding results: all traces of cancer in the mice, including untreated metastases, were completely eliminated. This was true for 97% of mice in the study!
People are now touting this study as a potential future cancer vaccine. In fact, the study found that this method worked for many different types of cancers including: breast cancer, colon cancer and even melanoma.
Ronald Levy, MD, professor of oncology and the senior author of the study, stated, “When we use these two agents together, we see the elimination of tumors all over the body. This approach bypasses the need to identify tumor-specific immune targets and doesn’t require wholesale activation of the immune system or customization of a patient’s immune cells.”
Luckily, these treatments may be available soon. One of these immune stimulating agents is already approved for human use. The other agent has already been tested for human use in a few other unrelated clinical trials.
Additionally, this new form of cancer therapy or treatment is rapid and relatively inexpensive compared to others available today. And this new treatment would most likely not cause the adverse side effects associated with other available treatments today.
Many other immunotherapy treatments for cancer have been developed to stimulate the entire immune system in the body.
Other treatments have been developed to target natural checkpoints in the body that limit anti-cancer activity of the immune cells. Other treatments, like the recently approved CAR T-cell therapy, require the removal of a patient’s immune cells so they can be genetically engineered to destroy the tumor cells.
Most of these approved treatments are successful in certain cases, but they all have negative side affects—from difficulty in handling to long preparation time to length of treatment.
“All of these immunotherapy advances are changing medical practice,” Levy added, “Our approach uses a one-time application of very small amounts of two agents to stimulate the immune cells only within the tumor itself. In the mice, we saw amazing, bodywide effects, including the elimination of tumors all over the animal.”
So, how exactly does this effective cancer vaccine work?
The body’s immune system has a tricky relationship with cancerous tumors. At first, immune cells like T cells will recognize the abnormal proteins that cancer cells typically contain and they will attack the tumor. But, as the tumor grows, the tumor will find ways to suppress the attacks of the T cells.
This new study by Levy uses a method that reactivates and remobilizing the cancer-specific T cells by injecting tiny amounts of two immune stimulating agents directly into the tumor.
You may be asking: what are the two agents?
The first is a short stretch of DNA called a CpG oligonucleotide. This agent works with surrounding immune cells to mobilize and amplify the expression on an activating receptor called OX40, which resides on the surface of T cells.
The other agent is an antibody, which binds to OX40 and activates the T cells to attack the cancer cells.
Because this treatments injects these two agents directly into the tumor, only T cells that have infiltrated the tumor are activated. But then, some of these tumor-specific T cells leave the original tumor and actually find and destroy other identical tumors in the body!
The results of this study found that 87 out of 90 mice were completely cured of the cancerous tumors in their body.
“This is a very targeted approach,” Levy said, “Only the tumor that shares the protein targets displayed by the treated side is affected. We’re attaching specific targets without having to identify exactly what proteins the T cells are recognizing.”
The next step of this study is a clinical trial. The trial will recruit 15 patients with low-grade lymphoma. If the trial is successful, it is likely that this treatment will be useful for many different types of tumors.
Levy believes that in the future patients will receive an injection of the two agents into a solid tumor prior to the surgical removal of the tumor. This would prevent recurrence due to an unidentified metastases or lingering cancer cells.
“I don’t think there is a limit to the type of tumor we could potentially treat, as long as it has been infiltrated by the immune system,” Levy said.
Who Could Benefit from a Cancer Vaccine
Chances are you know someone that could benefit from this study if trials are successful. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States.
In 2016 alone, approximately 1,685,210 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. and 595,690 died from the disease. In 2014, the number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5. By 2024, that number is expected to rise to 19 million.
Another way of looking at these statistics is that nearly 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetime!
Of course, this is not only devastating in the lives of so many families, but it is also incredibly expensive for those families. In the United States, the national expenditure for cancer care reached $125 billion in 2010 and is projected to increase to $156 billion by 2020.
For these reasons and many more, a cure for cancer is highly anticipated. If this study proves to deliver on its promise, it could change the course of the lives of millions.
We will keep a close eye on the developments of this new treatment as they unfold. For now, let’s hold tightly to hope.