As medical experts continue to debate the optimal age for mammography screening for breast cancer, new research shows that vaccinating women against breast cancer may be a future reality. While early detection, and improved chemotherapy for breast cancer, is considered by some physicians to be the best way to improve breast cancer mortality rates, a preventive approach using a vaccine could potentially be much more successful.
Immunotherapy for breast cancer involves vaccinating women against a protein that is associated with malignant cells and is not expressed by other cells. This is difficult because many proteins expressed by breast cancer cells are present in the normal human body. The researchers decided to use α-lactalbumin, a protein which is normally expressed in high levels only in pregnant women who are lactating during pregnancy. α-lactalbumin is expressed by a majority of breast carcinomas, thus making it a potential target for a breast cancer vaccine. The idea is to give the vaccine to women who are past their childbearing years in the hopes that it would allow the immune system to destroy malignant breast cancer cells at an early stage.
Such so called “immunotherapy” is being viewed by researchers as a possible new form of therapy which could be applied for use against a variety of cancers besides breast cancer. The breast cancer vaccine has been proven to be successful in an animal model of breast cancer, but human trials have not yet begun, so it may be a couple years before the vaccine is approved for use in humans if found to be effective.
Some questions though will have to be resolved first:
1. Since many women above the age of forty are becoming pregnant each year, especially with the help of fertility clinics, what safeguards will need to be in place should a premenopausal woman decided to receive this vaccine. Should she be placed on birth control?
2. The possibility of triggering an autoimmune disorder is always a concern with these experimental immunotherapy vaccines, what sort of monitoring should women who receive this vaccine have?
Nonetheless, immunotherapy for the prevention and treatment of cancers promises to offer a new option to possibly prevent breast cancer in women.