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Lung Cancer Vaccine Targets Tumor's Roots

Experimental Treatment Nearly Doubles Survival in Some Lung Cancer Patients
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Nov. 1, 2004 (Vienna, Austria) -- A novel non small cell lung cancer vaccine that stimulates the immune system to attack tumor cells is helping people with lung cancer live longer, researchers say.

Reporting here at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress, Charles Butts, MD, says that people treated with a lung cancer vaccine survived more than four months longer than those who received only standard cancer therapy.

Though four months might not seem like a long time, these patients had an aggressive disease that would be expected to kill even more quickly, says Butts, a cancer specialist at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, Alberta.

Even more exciting, he tells WebMD, is that among the subset of patients whose cancer was confined to the lung, nearly twice as many given the vaccine survived for two years compared with those given standard treatment.

"The results speak for themselves," Butts says. "There is a survival advantage that is difficult to ignore. This is huge."

Jose Baselga, MD, chairman of the scientific committee that chose which studies would be presented at the cancer meeting, agrees. "This is groundbreaking, the most important study of the meeting. There's a doubling in survival," he says.

Importantly, the same approach may be applicable to a wide variety of common cancers, including breast, colon, and prostate, notes Baselga, who was not involved with the trial.

How the Lung Cancer Vaccine Works

Unlike flu and other vaccines, most cancer vaccines under development are not intended to be given to healthy people to prevent disease. Rather, they are being developed to help patients with cancer bolster their immune system to better fight the disease.

In this case, the vaccine targets a specific protein that is altered in many lung cancer cells, encouraging the immune system to recognize the abnormal molecule and attack only those cells that carry it.

As an extra boost, patients are also given a drug that jump-starts the immune system, says Baselga, who is also chairman of oncology at the Vall D'Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain.

Because the vaccine targets only tumor cells, healthy cells are left unscathed. And that means the unpleasant side effects, such as hair loss and nausea, associated with traditional cancer medications are avoided, he says.

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