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It sounds almost too good to be true, but researchers at the Cleveland Clinic have developed a vaccine that prevents breast cancer in mice. And, even better, trials in humans may begin as early as next year. Still, even if the vaccine tests go well, lead researcher Vincent Tuohy, Ph.D. says it could be another 10 years before it is available to women.
For 10 months, Tuohy and his team studied the effects of their vaccine on genetically engineered mice that were predisposed to breast cancer. Their results, published in the June issue of the journal Nature Medicine, couldn’t have been better. All of the mice that received the vaccine avoided cancer, while all of the mice that didn’t get the vaccine went on to develop breast tumors.
"If it works in humans the way it works in mice, this will be monumental. We could eliminate breast cancer," Tuohy told the BBC.
Though this isn’t the first cancer vaccine, it is the first of its kind. The cervical cancer vaccine and liver cancer vaccine take aim at viruses that cause cancer, not the formation of cancer itself. Because breast cancer isn’t caused by a virus, scientists had to find a different way to stop tumors from forming. Adding to the difficulty, the body doesn’t recognize cancer as a foreign invader because cancer causes a proliferation of our own cells. So inoculating a person against them would cause the immune system to turn on itself, attacking both healthy and cancerous cells.
The vaccine instead targets a milk protein called a-lactalbumin that shows up in pregnant and lactating women, as well as in most breast tumors. To avoid complications with breastfeeding, the vaccine is being developed for women over the age of 40, which is when current guidelines suggest annual mammogram screenings.
If the breast cancer vaccine is ready in 10 years, I’ll be 46 and (hopefully) eligible to receive it. Though I am lucky enough to have no family history of the disease, like most of you I have so many friends who do. Maybe with a viable vaccine they could all finally breathe a big sigh of relief. It’s hard not to get excited by the prospect of wiping out breast cancer, but humans are not mice, and there could be many more returns to the drawing board before the breast cancer vaccine becomes a reality. But today we are definitely one enormous step closer, and that alone is enough reason to celebrate.
In the meantime, you can take steps to lower your risk of getting breast cancer by exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat, drinking no more than one alcoholic beverage a day, and performing monthly breast self-exams.