Cancer vaccines may sound like the stuff of science fiction — but as a scientific paper published earlier this month showed, they're quite real. And they don't just promise to change how we treat cancer in general; they could be particularly helpful for women dealing with cancer and other illnesses.
Though we probably associate the word "vaccine" with preventative medicine, the study examined "therapeutic vaccines," treatments designed to strengthen the immune system's ability to fight cancer in people who have already developed it. But just because they didn't prevent cancer, doesn't mean that these vaccines weren't an amazing help to the six melanoma patients included in the small study. Dr Catherine Wu and her team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard produced the vaccines by analyzing the DNA of each patient's tumors and creating customized injections that made their immune system attack their tumors. Each patient was shown to benefit from the vaccines, and while two needed extra treatments in addition to the vaccines, no patients saw their tumors return after treatment.
It's an amazing breakthrough (especially for me, an Australian with a family history of skin cancer so strong that my relatives sit around at Christmas and compare biopsy scars). But before you get over-excited and start telling everybody about how cancer is cured, know this is only very preliminary work. However, it does represent a big step forward in how we treat cancer — and shows how we might give better medical options to women, who are often given one-size-fits-all treatments designed for men. Bustle talked to Dr. Wu about how these vaccines might change medicine as we know it.
What Do Cancer Vaccines Actually Do?
Though these vaccines are new, "[t]he idea of cancer vaccines has been around for decades," Wu told Bustle. "Conceptually the idea of vaccines has always been appealing, because at its core what it’s trying to do is focus immune response." She called those immune responses, which are the key to destroying the cancer cells for vaccinated patients, "the magic bullet".
So how do you get that "magic bullet"? To develop the vaccines, Wu and her team input each patient's genetic information into a computer algorithm to predict how their tumors would mutate, then created a vaccine that injected those particular mutated proteins back into the tumors. The presence of the specific mutated proteins helped draw immune cells to the right place.
For the two patients with the worst cases of melanoma, an immunotherapy drug called a "checkpoint blockade antibody" was necessary. But while these drugs have been known to be effective on their own, when paired with the vaccines created by Wu's team, they were unstoppable in fighting the cancer.
The ideal future of cancer vaccines, Wu said, is "a one-two punch where you can mobilize a standing army," and vanquish melanoma tumors with a selection of different weapons. But the new techniques developed in the study won't be restricted to melanoma treatment. Wu believes the same approach could be expanded into other kinds of cancer with the right testing, and it doesn't end there. Cancer vaccines are part of a pantheon of new treatments and ideas that represent a shift from imprecise, one-size-fits-all medicine to a much more bespoke approach. And it stands to help women big time.
Why Does This Help Women So Much?
When we talk about "personalized vaccines," we're talking about a larger thing called "personalized medicine," which is treatment that takes an individual and their genetics into account. This kind of precise individual treatment stands to benefit women, who have often had their specific medical needs ignored by those developing treatments.
Many medications in the past, for example, were not sufficiently tested on women, or were released by manufacturers who didn't make clear that their products tended to work differently on men and women. Studies have shown that women's bodies metabolize various medications in different ways, from antipsychotics to anesthetics; this is why 80 percent of the drugs withdrawn by the FDA between 1997 and 2001 were taken off the market because of serious side effects for women specifically.
Cancer vaccines, meanwhile, represent a new frontier of medicine that acknowledges that patients thrive when medication takes all of their personal profile into account. "If you actually look...there’s nothing in the patient data [from the study] that ever says there’s a one size fits all response," Wu told Bustle. "Even though they might have the same type of leukemia or the same type of tumor, [the patients] differ a lot. We need to listen to that. It’s not a big logical leap to realize why we should be developing personal products rather than one-size-fits-all."
Personalized medicine doesn't end with vaccines; it can include everything from genetic testing to specialized medication. And some of the most promising work on that front has focused on cancers that target women specifically. Breast cancer in particular is seeing a lot of personalized tailoring of treatments, from testing individual women's biomarkers to targeting drugs at the specific DNA of cancer tumors. (Cancer tumors have different DNA to their sufferers, strangely enough.) Genetic testing of endometrial cancers, which are found in the lining of the uterus, has revealed that there are several tumor subtypes that require different kinds of care. And researchers are applying genetic sequencing to understand how to better treat cervical cancer tumors, too.
"Personalized medicine" doesn't only stand to help women with cancer, either. 78 percent of the people with autoimmune diseases are female, and personalized genetic testing has been suggested to help figure out the right dosages for a drug called mercaptopurine, which can induce side effects when dosed incorrectly. Inherited high cholesterol, which can increase the risk of a heart attack in women over 40 by 125 times, can now be diagnosed by genetic testing.
"Personalized medicine" can benefit anyone, of course. But for women, it may represent the beginning of an era in which we're no longer medicated like men.