Contributor: Vincent Tuohy, PhD
Vaccines are the most powerful intervention in medical history. Consider polio, which was virtually eradicated from the United States within a 20-year period.
Our country’s childhood vaccine program is effective at targeting 16 different pathogens, including measles and chickenpox. But the immunization schedule stops at age 13. The next planned vaccination, a booster for shingles, isn’t scheduled until age 60, leaving a giant gap in our preventive healthcare.
We have no adult vaccine program designed to protect against adult onset diseases, such as breast cancer, which affects 1 in 8 women around the world.
If a vaccine could eliminate polio, why not breast cancer? In 2002, my team and I started work on such a vaccine in our lab at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute. The challenge was to harness the immune system and destroy breast tumors before they could develop.
As an immunologist, I believe our immune system has a great capacity to protect us from many things, but we fail to take full advantage of it. The immune system can work much more effectively if it can prevent — rather than treat — disease.
Prevention is the cure. And prevention doesn’t mean early detection; it means stopping the disease before it starts. Focused, targeted vaccination can keep us healthy throughout our entire lives.
For eight years, we tested, retested and verified the results of our prototype: a single vaccination of the protein ∂-lactalbumin that would prevent breast tumors from forming in mice, while also inhibiting the growth of existing tumors. This particular protein is found in the majority of breast tumors, but not in normal breast tissues except during lactation.
We reasoned that if we immunized against this protein, the normal tissue wouldn’t be affected, and the emerging tumors wouldn’t occur. Our reasoning was right. None of the cancer-prone mice that received the vaccine developed breast cancer, while the others did.
Ninety-five percent of breast cancers occur in women over age 40, which is also when a majority of women are no longer breast-feeding. My ultimate hope is that when a woman reaches this age and is finished breastfeeding, she will go to her physician for the breast cancer vaccine — just like getting a colonoscopy at age 50.
I’m committed to leaving our daughters and granddaughters the gift of protection against breast cancer. I believe this vaccine can do that.
Our next step is to seek clearance from the FDA to move into clinical trials. We lack only the funding to proceed. Clinical trials will cost $1.2 million a year for five years. But this is an investment in the future. The money we spend today is going toward prevention.
Breast cancer is just the start. From here, we can investigate immune protection against a host of adult diseases, such as prostate, colon and ovarian cancers. This vaccine’s impact on human health could be a monumental legacy, drastically reducing the burden of disease both financially and emotionally.
I believe an adult vaccination program — beginning with breast cancer — can and should be the gift we leave for the next generation.