These next-generation vaccines could transform cancer treatment as we know it

Since the arrival of the first successful cowpox vaccine in 1796, vaccination has become one of the most powerful tools against the barrage of deadly infectious diseases lurking around us with invisible bacteria and viruses. increase.

Over the past few centuries, since the spread of the cowpox vaccine, life expectancy has increased steadily as societies have moved to healthier lifestyles, better hygiene, and increasingly robust medical care.

Nonetheless, cases of fatal diseases such as cancer and heart disease have also increased dramatically. And as the U.S. population grows and ages, these conditions are likely to become more prevalent.

Over the past few centuries, scientists have made great strides in vaccines and medicines, yet many people still struggle with deadly conditions.

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In fact, according to a 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annual cancer cases in the United States could increase by nearly 50 percent between 2015 and 2050, with the biggest impact on people aged 75 and over. It is said that there are more people.

Conditions that contribute to the risk of heart disease, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, could also surge among the U.S. population in the coming decades, according to a study published last year in a journal. Journal of the American College of Cardiology found.

But we may have hope for these common ailments. Researchers are now devoting resources to developing vaccines for heart disease and cancer. Moderna, the biotech giant that is developing one of the leading Covid-19 vaccines, claims it could have a vaccine by 2030.

These tools could help reverse the tide against the social and physical destruction these diseases bring, and in the process help researchers understand the inner workings of the body. But while these breakthrough vaccines have generated a lot of buzz, they may not be the panacea that many hope.

harness the immune system

High-tech vaccines that harness genetic material such as mRNA could help treat epidemic diseases.

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Cancer arises for many reasons, including genetic mutations, environmental factors, and even chance. That’s part of what makes their studies so difficult.

“Cancer is unique to the person, so technically all cancers are different,” says Lee Wilk, senior medical director of the Clinical Oncology Service at the University of Wisconsin Health. reciprocal.

Also, because tumors are caused by abnormal growth of cells, our immune system often does not recognize them as a threat and is unable to protect us from them. But in recent years, researchers have made strides in developing innovative new treatments, including these high-tech treatments.

Vaccines usually work by vaccinating people against infectious diseases as a preventive measure. But cancer vaccines are very different and will probably work as part of someone’s broader treatment. Some are offering new, potentially more effective immunotherapies that train the immune system to fight these diseases.

Ravi Majeti, director of the Stanford Institute for Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, said doctors could use these vaccines in combination with existing cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, to improve their chances of survival. He said it could be given to patients. reciprocal.

“Generally speaking, cancer vaccination does not prevent disease,” Majeti said. “The aim is to vaccinate people who already have the disease to make their immune systems mount a stronger response to cancer.”

Moderna’s shots work by using a type of genetic material called mRNA to teach the body to make molecules called antigens that activate an immune response. The process would likely begin by taking a biopsy of a patient’s cancer cells and sequencing the genes in the lab to pinpoint those mutations.

Immune cells then convert the mRNA introduced by the vaccine into protein fragments identical to those found in the tumor, instructing other immune cells to destroy cancer cells carrying the same proteins.

Other than these details, Moderna hasn’t revealed much information yet — and the company hasn’t responded. in inverse Request for comments.

Other pharmaceutical companies known for their COVID-19 vaccines have also joined the effort. BioNTech recently developed a vaccine for pancreatic cancer that is also mRNA dependent. Scientists just reported that the new vaccine boosted an immune response in half of the vaccinated patients, and those patients showed no signs of recurrence for about 18 months. Although this was a small study, involving only 16 patients, the research community found the results encouraging.

Research institutes are also researching vaccines to combat heart disease, another common cause of death. Nearly a decade ago, a team at Harvard University announced it was working on a genome-editing technique with a single injection that could help lower cholesterol in mice by about 35 to 40 percent. In humans, it may reduce the risk of heart attack by up to 90%.

Since then, scientists around the world have jumped on the bandwagon and devised treatments for heart disease, many of which target a gene in the liver called PCSK9. This gene tells the body how to make a protein that regulates the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream, but some people have mutations in this gene that put them at an increased risk of heart disease.

For now, patients can also get an injection called Leqvio that is given twice a year. It uses another type of genetic material, small interfering RNA (siRNA), to reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (also known as “bad” cholesterol), a major risk factor for heart disease. It works by It does this by blocking the PCSK9 protein, which helps the body remove LDL cholesterol from the blood.

But Leqvio can’t do it all. Doctors recommend taking Leqvio to supplement statin therapy and a healthy diet.

future shot

A heart disease vaccine is still in its early stages.

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Despite promises, it’s still decades (and more than billions of dollars) before these shots come to fruition. Researchers working on these vaccines have many hurdles to overcome before the Food and Drug Administration certifies them as safe and effective. But trials of a promising cancer vaccine have already begun.

For example, Wilk is the principal investigator of a breast cancer vaccine clinical trial he is conducting with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in Madison, School of Public Health. Researchers will test whether people who have been treated for triple-negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer, respond to a DNA-based vaccine that can boost the immune system and prevent recurrence. are doing.

Phase I and II trials are currently underway, but Phase III, which targets a larger patient population, could take about five years to arrive, Wilk said.

There have also been recent advances in heart disease vaccine research. For example, a US company called Vaxxinity announced in March that it had begun a phase I trial of a vaccine that produces antibodies against PCSK9.

After all, scientists still can’t predict when these new technologies will become widely available. But many researchers are excited about what new discoveries we can expect in the future of medicine.

“The chronically static survival curve for American cancer patients is beginning to show substantial improvements in long-term survival,” Majeti said. “This is a time of hope, but there is much work to be done.”

The Cusp is a weekly Inverse series that offers a glimpse into the science and technology that could power our future.

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