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The Quest to Develop Cancer Vaccines

What if you could get a shot that would stop cancer from growing in your body? You may think that sounds great—but about as likely as a Cubs victory in the World Series.

Actually, it’s not that far-fetched. Researchers at RUSH University Medical Center are part of a widespread effort to develop vaccines against cancer.

Historically, doctors have attacked cancer from the “outside-in,” using surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. But scientists have begun learning to use the body’s own disease-fighting agents—the immune system—to fight cancer from the inside-out.

“We now have an infinitely clearer vision of the basic biology behind cancer and how the body combats it,” says Kevin Conlon, MD, a RUSH oncologist and cancer vaccine researcher.

Helping the immune system
The immune system patrols the body, spotting invaders and leading the attack against them. But it sometimes fails to recognize cancer cells as invaders.

Vaccines are intended to act as reinforcements, helping the immune system identify and strike down cancer cells so that they don’t reproduce and spread.

Vaccines may stop cancerous tumors from growing or kill cancer cells not destroyed by other treatments. Researchers also try to combine vaccines with other forms of treatment, in effect ganging up on cancer cells.

Research at RUSH
Several clinical trials at RUSH have focused on the possibility of cancer vaccines. In one, proteins were taken from the cancer cells of patients with non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, then used to create a vaccine designed to target those same cells. And in a current study, RUSH researchers are investigating the power of a vaccine to slow the growth of prostate cancer.

In this study, led at RUSH by urologist Dennis Pessis, MD, men will receive a vaccine called Provenge. The vaccine will be given to men whose cancer has spread beyond the prostate and has grown despite hormone therapy.

An earlier study with a small number of participants suggested that this vaccine can extend survival for men with advanced prostate cancer.

“Most people getting vaccines have advanced cancers,” says Conlon. “There’s an urgency to come up with better treatments. We have a long way to go, but there’s hope here.”

For more information about clinical trials related to cancer at RUSH, visit www.rush.edu/clinicaltrials.

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