Cancer vaccines have long been considered a dud in research circles, after numerous attempts have failed to produce meaningful results.
But a new type of vaccine could be on the horizon, with researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute developing personalized immunizations designed to attack the exact cancer DNA of each individual patient.
Once the cancer cells are harvested, genetic mapping takes place and they isolate the mutated tumor cells - then it's on to the "cooking" process:
The "cooking" uses a scientific recipe that was published recently in the journal Nature: You take those unique tumor mutations, and you use prediction algorithms to choose about 20 of them as likely to be your best targets.
Then, you make a vaccine that trains the patient's immune system to attack only cells with those targets. (The targets are called neoantigens: "neo" because they're new — they exist only on the tumor.) You also add a booster that stimulates the patient's immune response.
The resulting vaccine is then injected into the patient's arm or leg numerous times, and the patient's own immune cells are trained to fight the specific cancer occupying the body - no matter where it has spread.
"When they find the tumor, or any piece of the tumor, they'll start to attack it," he says. "And the hope is to be able to get this vaccine to work strongly enough to completely eliminate the tumor, not just kill a little bit of it."
Though the research is still in its early stages, scientists are hopeful it represents a new and more effective approach to treating cancer.
"You're beginning to see how scientists have cracked the code that distinguishes individual cancers and the individual immune system on a patient-by-patient basis," says Jesse Boehm, associate director of the Broad Institute's cancer program.