NeuVax breast cancer vaccine tested at Memorial Regional Cancer Center

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We have vaccines to prevent mumps, measles, polio, and even cervical cancer, so imagine a world where a vaccine could prevent the invasive breast cancer that develops in one in eight women.

One local oncologist thinks we may be fewer than two decades away from that being reality.

Memorial Regional Cancer Center is the only hospital in Indiana taking part in the NeuVax vaccine trial, and one of only 27 sites in the country. Doctors are hoping it will stop the recurrence of breast cancer in women at high risk.

Jennifer Joyce of Granger found out she had breast cancer three years ago. "You're just sort of devastated," the 48-year-old explains.

She had lapsed doing self-breast exams, and her primary care physician found a lump during a wellness checkup. From there, she says, things moved rapidly. "Once you get the diagnosis, everything moves so quickly and it's really just sort of a whirlwind. You need to go here and get this test and we've scheduled this for you and on and on."

After all the testing, it was decided Jennifer needed a mastectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

Dr. Thomas Reid, Medical Director and Chief of Hematology-Oncology at Memorial Cancer Care Center, is Jennifer's oncologist.

The mother of two daughters, one now in high school and another on her way, says the treatment -- as most women would probably tell you -- was hard on the family, but they handled it.

"It was rough there for a little bit. How they are now, it definitely formed them, in many ways, to the people they are now, having me go through that," Jennifer explains.

After her treatment of radiation and chemotherapy was complete, Jennifer was told she might be a candidate for a cancer vaccine trial.

According to Dr. Reid, positive lymph node involvement and other factors made Jennifer a perfect candidate. "Certain characteristics of the estrogen and progesterone receptor made her at increased risk for the cancer coming back, so that combination of things made her eligible for this kind of study."

Jennifer decided to take part, and during the first part of the trial, she got three shots of Herceptin every three weeks.

It's a targeted therapy that kills off the growth of cells that make too much of a protein called HER-2, binding to the protein that sits on the surface of the cancer cells. Dr. Reid explains, "We kind of prime the immune system to work with the Herceptin/Trastuzumab first. The antibody gets activated itself and recruits the immune system to attack the cancer."

After that therapy was complete, Jennifer started the actual vaccine, which is also injected.

"You get a total of six injections of that, and then several months later four booster shots," Dr. Reid explains. "The idea is that you've now primed the immune system with the Herceptin/Trastuzumab, and then you have a vaccine which is actually a small component of the HER-2."

The vaccine will then stimulate healthy cells, which will gobble anything up that is foreign, take them, process them and then are picked up by T-cells. "These are the T-cells that can be natural killer cells," Dr. Reid explains.

He says they can find cancer cells that MRI's and blood tests won't pinpoint. "Then those go around and survey wherever the cancer might be. Go out and find them wherever they are resting, and then attack them wherever they are."

Jennifer has one more round of shots this summer and will have her last checkup in about a year. Right now she says life is good. "I feel awesome. I feel really good. I am back to my normal things I had been doing previous to my cancer diagnosis."

Dr. Reid is confident that targeted immunotherapy, through vaccines, will one day be cancer's biggest threat. "It's the wave of the future, actually I should say it's the wave of the present and I think the wave of the future as well."

While the NeuVax vaccine is meant to prevent cancer from returning, will we ever have a vaccine so that women never have to worry about even getting the disease? Dr. Reid is optimistic, and he doesn't think it's too far off. "I think so. I think we'll see it going in that direction in the next 15 to 20 years, absolutely. I have a lot of confidence in that."

The NeuVax trial at Memorial is in phase two. It will need to go through phase three before it would get FDA approval.

Reid pointed out that the research got a huge shot in the arm from President Obama in this year's State of the Union address when he announced a new initiative called the National Cancer Moonshot, dedicating $1 billion to jumpstart cancer research.

Number one on the Moonshot list? Prevention and cancer vaccine development.

An example is the Gardasil vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer and is now recommended for all children starting at the age of 9. Nine in ten people will get the HPV infection in their lifetime, and that can lead to cervical and other cancers.

Dr. Reid hopes the president is successful in the coming months of working with Congress to launch the next phase of investments so that a vaccine to prevent breast cancer may, in the next 15 or 20 years, become a reality.