SACRAMENTO — Estimated one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, which kills an average of 42,000 women a year in the United States.
What if there was a vaccine that would significantly lower every woman’s chance of ever getting it in the first place? In that question lies what could be the answer to one day eliminating the deadly disease.
A ground-breaking vaccine created through decades of research on Cleveland Clinic and developed by Anixa Biosciences in San Jose, California, is driving innovation by targeting triple-negative breast cancer, the deadliest and most aggressive form of the disease.
“This vaccine could potentially eliminate breast cancer,” said Dr. Amit Kumar, Anixa CEO.
The vaccine’s results from its first trial with 16 women was published on Wednesdaywith each participant reporting no bad side effects and no recurrence of their cancer so far.
Jennifer Davis, a brave woman from small town Ohio, was the first woman in the world to receive the vaccine in October 2021.
“This is how we promote medicine. It’s important to be a part of these things,” Davis said. “I’m just beyond grateful.”
When Davis heard the dreaded words “you have cancer” in September 2018, it came six months after her first warning of an abnormality on a routine mammogram and ultrasound.
At that time, her biopsy came back negative for cancer.
“I really wanted to think everything was OK, but I knew something wasn’t right,” Davis said.
At 41 years old, she had no history of cancer. Still, she could feel a lump growing and decided to go for a second opinion and another biopsy.
She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. Her thoughts immediately went to her family and three children.
“It was very hard to tell them and try to be strong for them,” Davis said. “With triple negatives, there’s nothing for us to take — no pill or anything to prevent recurrence. The rate is high and the results are bad if it comes back.”
After chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation, Davis was finally cancer-free, but she wasn’t free of the lingering fear.
“I was always nervous and afraid it would come back,” she said.
So when she heard about an experimental vaccine trial while receiving her cancer treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, she thought, “What have I got to lose?”
“It was something that would give me peace of mind,” Davis said. “If this could work for me, then I wouldn’t have to worry about a recurrence.”
She became the first woman in the world to take the breast cancer vaccine.
A nurse herself, what eased her mind was the fact that in years of animal testing there had been no cancer recurrence and no anaphylactic reaction.
“That was all I needed to hear,” said Davis, who reports that in the two years since taking the vaccine, she has never felt better.
The vaccine has been studied for more than two decades at the Cleveland Clinic, pioneering pre-clinical research led by the late Dr. Vincent Tuohy.
Inspired by this and what it could mean for the future of cancer diagnostics, Dr. Bow to the clinic to develop the vaccine.
“I looked at it and I saw the sight,” Kumar said.
So how does it work?
“Is it essentially teaching your body not to grow a tumor?” CBS13 reporter Ashley Sharp asked.
“That’s absolutely true. It teaches your body to destroy the cells that can grow a tumor,” Kumar said.
If a virus appears in the body, the immune system teaches itself how to destroy it, easily knowing which cells are bad.
With cancer, it is more difficult, explained Dr. Kumar.
“All the cells that become cancerous in your body came from normal, healthy cells,” Kumar said. “The difference is not great, so the immune system has a harder time recognizing a cancer cell and distinguishing it from a healthy cell.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the vaccine continues to work targeting a lactation protein called α-lactalbumin, which are no longer found after breastfeeding in normal, aging tissue. However, it is present in most triple-negative breast cancer patients. If breast cancer develops, the vaccine is designed to instruct the immune system to attack the tumor and prevent it from growing completely.
“The results are incredibly promising,” Kumar said. “The vision is to one day be able to give this to every woman who wants to prevent cancer from ever appearing in her body. It’s a small step and we have many more steps to go, but it’s incredible if we can get it to happen.”
It’s a promising finding for the future of fighting cancer that started with one woman, but hopefully ends with every woman.
“The bigger picture of this is overwhelming to me,” Davis said.
The second vaccine trial is due to start in 2024, this time with 600 women instead of 16. This study will be on a much larger scale, with half of the women receiving the vaccine and the other half receiving a placebo.
The hope is that within five years they can get FDA approval to distribute the vaccine to the public.