Don J. Diamond, PhD, told Healthline, “In actuality, this is a refinement
of studies that have been published in numerous journals.”
Diamond is chair and professor at the Department of Experimental Therapeutics
at City of Hope in California.
“Certainly, a wide variety of mutations can contribute to the development
of cancer. Because those mutations are unique, the development of a generalized
cancer vaccine to cover all those driver mutations is hard to envision
with today’s technology,” Diamond said.
Diamond added there are a few genes, such as TP53, that are associated
with a lot of cancers. But there’s another problem in coming up
with a vaccine.
“What caused the mutation in the first place may have nothing do
with the cancer itself, or the driving force for metastasis. At the time
of therapy, the early event may no longer be responsible,” he explained.
Vaccines to treat certain types of cancer
A broad approach aside, vaccines can be used to treat specific types of cancer.
Doctors are already treating some cancers with immune checkpoint modulators.
By directing the immune system toward a specific target, a vaccine may
prevent recurrence. It may also enhance the effects of other immunotherapies,
according to Faries.
“The HER2/neu, the mutant protein most commonly found in breast cancer,
led to drugs like
trastuzumab,” said Faries.
“Efforts are underway to develop vaccines against that same protein.
Not only in breast cancer, but in gastric and other cancers as well. Possibly
across a broader spectrum of cancers that express that particular abnormality.”
Faries cautioned that some of the more advanced vaccine approaches would
probably be too expensive to think about in a wide population.
Vaccines to prevent specific cancers
Diamond said there are obstacles to preventive vaccines for specific cancers.
“It’s very hard to predict what type of cancer someone would
get, or when they would develop it. You’d have to balance the present
with the future, and reward with unknown risks,” he said. “Will
the side effect of trying to prevent one cancer be the acceleration of
another? We don’t know enough to make those decisions ethically
Eliminating viral-based cancers is a much safer strategy, said Diamond.
Faries agrees. “The most successful preventive vaccines are generally
those that protect from causative agents,” he said.
An example of this is the hepatitis B vaccine. It helps prevent liver cancer
caused by hepatitis. Another example is the HPV vaccine. It helps prevent
Where we go from here
Study results like these can be disappointing.
That doesn’t mean cancer researchers will stop trying.
“There’s a survival benefit to understanding cancer,”
said Sandra Brown, MS, LCGC, cancer genetics program manager at the
Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment at St. Joseph Hospital in California.
“Cancer is basically evolution on steroids,” she wrote in an
email to Healthline.
“We consciously create a healthy environment, although aging alone
can lead to the accumulation of mutations necessary for tumorigenesis.
Then we treat to create a hostile environment while the cancer may evolve
multiple clonal pathways in an attempt to reproduce successfully within
She continued, “Perhaps often we win and the tumor dies. But there
is always the possibility that lethally resistant random mutations will
occur anytime in tumorigenesis, particularly during treatment. Genetically
modified humans may someday be immune to tumorigenesis, or attenuated
viruses may someday perfectly recognize tumor cells for targeted destruction.”
Preventing cancer now
Broad therapeutic or preventive cancer vaccines won’t happen anytime soon.
This makes other methods of cancer prevention that much more important.
The first step, according to Faries, is understanding the cause.
We already know what causes some cancers. But prevention is still a problem,
he explained. That’s because you have to apply this knowledge to
a wide population who might not be intent on following through.
“Smoking is a classic example. You can tell people until you’re
blue in the face that smoking kills. But they continue to smoke,”
His suggestion is that people should consider their family history and
other risk factors. If you’re more likely to get a certain type
of cancer, learn the prevention measures.
Diamond has a few words of advice for anyone trying to lower their cancer risk.
Protect yourself from the sun, don’t smoke, manage your weight, and
don’t eat charcoaled foods.