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Experts praise promise of breast cancer vaccine

A Radiology technician prepares a woman for a

A Radiology technician prepares a woman for a mammography, a common way of looking for breast cancer. Credit: Getty Images File

A team at the Cleveland Clinic has laid the scientific groundwork for a breast cancer vaccine that may work much the same way as immunizations for mumps and measles.

The vaccine is made using a protein called alpha-lactalbumin, which is prevalent in a wide range of breast cancers, scientists said Tuesday.

"This is a first-of-its-kind prototype," said Dr. Vincent Tuohy, principal investigator of the research.

While the vaccine so far has been tested only in mice, Tuohy said human clinical trials could begin as early as next year, though a marketable vaccine is at least a decade away. He also predicted that the vaccine one day could be administered routinely to women starting at age 40.

Dr. Janice Lu, a specialist in breast cancer and director of medical oncology at Stony Brook University Medical Center, praised the Cleveland effort Tuesday. "This is very important research," Lu said, adding "they targeted a protein that is expressed in high amounts in breast tumors."

She said the prototype vaccine differs from the other 40 anti-breast cancer vaccines under study that are designed to thwart breast cancer only after it has advanced. The recently approved prostate cancer vaccine, Provenge, was developed to attack cancer only after it has spread.

As with immunizations against infectious diseases, the anti-breast cancer vaccine is administered by injection. Many of the vaccines under study that are designed to attack advanced breast cancer are delivered intravenously, as is Provenge.

In his research at the clinic's Lerner Research Institute, Tuohy and his colleagues vaccinated two groups of cancer-prone mice - one with alpha-lactalbumin and the other with a sham vaccine. None of the mice vaccinated with alpha-lactalbumin developed the cancer, while all of the animals immunized with the sham developed tumors. Complete results of the research are reported in the current online edition of Nature Medicine and in next week's bound edition of the journal.

"The conception for this goes back eight years," Tuohy said. "I realized there was a huge hole in our preventive health care plan. We have a wonderful childhood vaccination program that protects us from polio and measles, but that program stops dead at age 13."

What is needed, he added, is a vaccination program that protects adults against many of the insidious conditions that are life-threatening - and costly.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, and is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates more than 190,000 cases will be diagnosed this year nationwide and 40,000 women will die of the disease.

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