Advances in medicine continue to astound us. Over the years, conditions that were once thought a near-immediate death sentence now have treatments that will extend patients’ lives for months or years beyond the initial diagnosis. With the death of business icon Steve Jobs, interest in vaccines for pancreatic cancer – a disease that kills 95% of those who have it within five years – has increased dramatically. The good news is, unlike many other forms of cancer, there are actually some promising early trials moving into larger studies. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have created a novel treatment for the disease, one so intuitive it could end up creating dramatic change for the treatment of cancer in other tissues. Here’s what you need to know:
Simple and to the Point
Much like any vaccine, this one acts to stimulate the immune system. What makes this treatment unique is the ability to use this built-in response to attack tissues that generally find a way to hide undetected by the body’s natural defenses. Using dead pancreatic cancer cells altered to create a special chemical called GM-CSF, immune cells are enticed to develop antigens against this molecule quickly. Then, acting like a roving band of vigilantes in search of a criminal, they spread out to other tissues and fight active cancer cells. The resulting interaction slows the progression of tumors, possibly allowing other, time-tested therapies an extended period to do the work of killing the deadly growth.
Research is Ongoing
The vaccine, being relatively new in pharmaceutical terms, has only just moved into clinical trials. These tests, which include hundreds or thousands of patients instead of three or four dozen, will determine the fate of TeloVac – so named because it works on the telomerase enzyme cancer cells use to keep from dying. Essentially, scientists are attempting to figure out the best combination of vaccine and chemotherapy to use, a difficult balance that must ensure the immune system is allowed to attack the tumor at the same time radiation is being used to kill it. Researchers are looking into three different methods of counteracting the disease: a general dose of radiation and vaccine, a targeted application of both, and separate interventions. If all goes well, results are expected to be released in 2012.
It’s Not a Cure
The fact of the matter is pancreatic cancer is incredibly tricky. The condition is often silent for months or years, only manifesting when it has progressed to the extent of invading other tissues. At this point, time is short for the individual who gets the bad news. The idea, at this point, is not to reverse the cancer and return the tissue to a normal, healthy state. The limits of the vaccine – both in its scope and the length of time it’s been tested – mean it is used only to buy time. However, when you are faced with the possibility of surviving for several months as opposed to a few weeks, those precious extra days are worth celebrating.