No, a Universal Cancer Vaccine Was Not Just Developed

While a recent media report was more hype than science, it did focus on a promising pathway for cancer treatments.

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3D visualizations of breast cells. Vivek Nandakumar/Arizona State University.

More than 40 years after Nixon called for "a national commitment for the conquest of cancer", is victory finally in sight?

An article published in the Telegraph on Sunday suggested that a weapon able to crush cancer had arrived. Headlined "'Universal' cancer vaccine developed", the piece about Israeli Vaxil BioTherapeutics' new drug ImMucin, has seen a deluge of interest.

Unlike November 2011 reports about the drug that were met with little fanfare, this piece has been covered by dozens of news outlets and shared 19,000 times on Facebook alone. According to the Telegraph, Vaxil's wonderdrug, "which targets a molecule found in 90 percent of all cancers, could provide a universal injection that allows patients' immune systems to fight off common cancers including breast and prostate cancer."

The molecule in question is Mucin1 (or MUC1), a sugar-coated protein that lines the inner surface of lung, stomach, and pancreas to defend against pathogens. In nearly all tumors MUC1 can be found and "a certain portion of MUC1 molecule ... will transform cells and make them cancerous", says Dr. Jeffrey Schlom, head of the Immunotherapeutics group at the Center for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute within the National Institutes of Health. On tumors, MUC1 possess a different sugar makeup than on normal cells, so cancerous MUC1 can be targeted without damaging normal cells. For these reasons, according to Schlom, scientists have long targeted MUC1 in cancer therapies.

Yet, the claim that ImMucin will yield a universal vaccine remains dubious. Although 90% of cancers express MUC1, Dr. Schlom thinks it is "a bit of a stretch" that this vaccine could treat 90% of cancers. Even flu vaccines never approach absolute effectiveness. Cancerous cells, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, are all defective in their own way, so, Schlom believes, every cancer will need its own vaccine

At this point, ImMucin remains in Phase I/II clinical trials and only 7 out of 10 patients have finished treatment. With such a small sample size that tests only one type of cancer - multiple myeloma - and no published human data, it remains too early for anyone to make conclusive claims about the drug's effectiveness against multiple myeloma or any other cancers. Indeed, in the Telegraph article Dr. Kat Arney of Cancer Research UK warns "these are very early results that are yet to be fully published, so there's a lot more work to be done to prove that this particular vaccine is safe and effective in cancer patients."

ImMucin may not be the wonder drug advertised, but hope remains for the therapeutic potential of MUC1 vaccines. "There have clearly been failures of vaccines targeting MUC1", Dr. Schlom reminds us, "but that doesnt mean newer vaccines won't do it better." Currently, researchers are conducting 30 clinical trials involving MUC1 therapies around the country. One such treatement called Stimuvax, a therapeutic vaccine similar to ImMucin, has shown promise in early clinical trials treating lung cancer and should finish clinical testing by early 2013. The speculative grandeur around ImMucin should not obscure actual scientific advance.

Overstatement of this drugs potential impact should serve as a reminder of the thousands of experts who have devoted their careers to trying to find cures for deadly diseases. If such a panacea is ever developed, it will be announced by the medical journal The Lancet, not the Telegraph.



Presented by

Neal Emery is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on public health. He works for GlobeMed, a nonprofit that partners college students and community health organizations to complete public health projects.

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