The familiar pink ribbon that is commonly associated with breast cancer represents something different to everyone. For most people, the ribbon is an international token of awareness that inspires hope for finding a cure.
Many of us have not experienced the formidable overgrowth of abnormal cells, while others have been spared from witnessing the life-threatening struggle of a family member or friend. For unaffected observers, the ribbon is merely a symbol that signifies collective moral support. But for the people who have lived with this disease, it means much more.
According to a new study published in the Dec. 1 issue of Clinical Cancer Research, a vaccine to disarm the debilitating disease has shown great promise in experimental trials. Although nothing has been confirmed, the vaccine seems to be safe and effective in slowing down the progression of the disease.
The study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis included fourteen women who were diagnosed with an “advanced” stage of breast cancer, which means that the illness was severe enough to require chemotherapy. Because chemotherapy is known to weaken the immune system, the patients had not received treatments for a month prior to the start of the study.
To understand the vaccination, one must understand the disease. Breast cancer is caused by the overproduction of abnormal cells that begin to invade breast tissue, form a malignant tumor and spread throughout the body. These cancerous cells are incorrect copies of replicated DNA, which have fought against the body’s natural suicide mechanism and have also escaped undetected by the immune system.
The vaccine works by instructing a certain white blood cell to attack and destroy an excess protein found in breast tumors called mammaglobin-A. This protein is a marker for the disease because it is present in 80 percent of breast cancer patients, according to the researchers. It is anticipated that the vaccine will simultaneously boost the immune system while slowing the progression and spread of the disease.
One year after the vaccine was administered, scientists concluded that the disease did not progress in about 50 percent of the patients in the trial. The side effects were reported to be minimal, including rashes, tenderness and mild flu-like symptoms. In comparison, within a similar group of 12 patients, only 20 percent showed no signs of progression after one year, according to the study.
Dr. William Gillanders, co-author of the study and vice chairman for research in the department of surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, claimed that although the clinical trial was small, the researchers could confidently say that the vaccine is safe.
“We can also say with confidence that we were able to generate an immune response in almost all the patients who were vaccinated,” he said. “And there is preliminary evidence that the vaccine may have an impact on breast cancer progression. But that needs to be studied further to be confirmed.”
Researchers admittedly require a longer study with a larger sample size, but believe that the vaccine would be even more effective in newly diagnosed women who have yet to undergo chemotherapy.
Dr. Courtney Vito, a breast surgeon and assistant clinical professor of surgical oncology with the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., said that the vaccine “makes a lot of sense and is very promising.”
“Ramping up the immune system specifically against breast cancer cells is really just augmenting nature’s own lines of defense, possibly without the side effects of drugs like chemotherapy, which is what this trial showed,” Vito said.
Because breast cancer is a disease that does not discriminate based on age, class, race, ethnicity, and in some cases, even gender, it comes without warning and without mercy. The findings from the study are both promising and exciting, especially for those who have yet to see improvement in their condition. Although the vaccine is still in the early stages of development, its existence represents the powerful changes created by the collective hope that is symbolized by the petite pink ribbon.
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