Is the best treatment for cancer already inside of us?

Research is underway at Washington University to test a new approach to cancer treatment. Beyond traditional therapies like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, scientists want to know if the human body’s own immune system can attack tumors.

They’re testing personalized vaccines designed to target deadly cancer cells in each patient. A vaccine is any substance that prevents or treats a disease with properties of the disease itself. Scientists know that fighting fire with fire works for many viruses such as flu, measles or polio. Now they want to test that theory with cancer, but since every tumor is different, every vaccine will be different.

Advancements in genetic sequencing, or decoding the DNA of cells, have made it easier to figure out what makes tumors unique. Scientists have found potential targets in tumor cells that could cause them to break down. Now they’re passing that knowledge on to doctors to try out in their patients with the most challenging cancers. Clinical trials are now enrolling patients with melanoma, brain cancer and breast cancer.

The concept is hypothetical. The research is experimental. There is no proof that it works.

But after staring down deadly cancers, tumors that have spread, and patients who are out of options, doctors are intrigued.


For decades, scientists have gone back and forth on whether the immune system — the body’s defense mechanism — has anything to do with cancer. In the 1950s, a concept called cancer immuno-surveillance took hold, meaning that the immune system could recognize tumor cells as foreign. By the 1970s, the theory was rejected after laboratory mice with weak immune systems did no worse than normal mice when they developed cancer.

Most cancer scientists moved on to trying different pharmaceutical routes for new treatments. Robert Schreiber of Washington University wanted to know more about those mice. He started more sophisticated tests with mice that lacked a critical gene that allowed the immune system to make lymphocytes — white blood cells that defend the body against disease.

“What we showed conclusively was mice that had defects in the immune system got tumors more quickly and in higher incidences than normal mice,” Schreiber said.

And with that, the concept of cancer immunology was back.

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