Breast Cancer Vaccine

Help prevent the development of breast cancer

September 2010

Cleveland Clinic researchers have developed a prototype vaccine that may protect against breast cancer. The first-of-its-kind vaccine has shown overwhelmingly favorable results in animal models, according to a study by researchers at Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute. The preclinical studies were recently published in Nature Medicine, a leading international biomedical journal.

In terms of developing a preventive vaccine, cancer presents a quandary not posed by viruses. While viruses are recognized by the immune system as foreign invaders, cancer is not. Rather, cancer is an overdevelopment of the body’s own cells. Trying to vaccinate against this cell overgrowth effectively would be vaccinating against the recipient’s own body, destroying healthy tissue.

Vincent Tuohy, PhD, the study’s principal investigator and an immunologist at the Lerner Research Institute, says that the key is to find a target within the tumor that is not typically found in a healthy person. In the case of breast cancer, Dr. Tuohy and his research team targeted α-lactalbumin — a protein that is found in the majority of breast cancers but is not found in healthy women, except during lactation. Therefore, the vaccine potentially can rev up a woman’s immune system to target α-lactalbumin — thus stopping tumor formation — without damaging healthy breast tissue.

If the vaccine is proven successful in clinical testing, the strategy would be to vaccinate women over 40 — when breast cancer risk begins to increase and pregnancy becomes less likely. If a woman were to become pregnant after being vaccinated, she would experience breast soreness and would likely have to choose not to breastfeed. For younger women with a heightened risk of breast cancer, the vaccine may be an option to consider instead of prophylactic radical mastectomy.

Most attempts at cancer vaccines have targeted viruses or cancers that have already developed. As an immunologist, rather than a traditional cancer researcher, Dr. Tuohy takes an approach that is completely different — attacking the tumor before it can develop. It’s a simple concept, yet one that has not been explored fully until now.

Dr. Tuohy believes that the findings of this study could go beyond breast cancer, providing insight into the development of vaccines to prevent other types of cancer and adult diseases.

To make an online gift supporting the development of a breast cancer vaccine, the Lerner Research Institute, the Taussig Cancer Institute or any area of Cleveland Clinic, visit our secure giving site, or call Institutional Relations and Development at 216.444.1245 or toll-free at 800.223.2273, ext. 41245.

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