Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New super vaccine could tackle 70% of lethal cancers and is better than 'wonder drug' Herceptin

Bright eyed hopes like this tend not to survive the test of time but you never know. When even effective drugs that have been in common use for decades eventually end up banned, pessimism would seem in order

A vaccine that could deal a serious blow to seven in ten lethal cancers has been developed by scientists.

In tests, it shrunk breast tumours by 80 per cent, and researchers believe it could also tackle prostate, pancreatic, bowel and ovarian cancers.

Even tumours that resist treatment with the best medicines on the market, including the ‘wonder drug’ Herceptin, may be susceptible to the vaccine.

The experiments done so far have been on mice, but researchers hope to pilot the drug on people within two years. If all goes well, the vaccine – one of the first to combat cancer – could be on the market by 2020.

More than 300,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed in Britain each year and the disease kills around half this number annually.

Rather than attacking cancer cells, like many drugs, the new treatment harnesses the power of the immune system to fight tumours.

The search for cancer vaccines has until now been hampered by fears that healthy tissue would be destroyed with tumours. To get round this, researchers from the University of Georgia and the Mayo Clinic in the United States focused on a protein called MUC1 that is made in bigger amounts in cancerous cells than in healthy ones. Not only is there more of it, but a sugar that it is ‘decorated’ with has a distinctive shape.

The vaccine ‘trains’ the immune system to recognise the rogue sugar and turn its arsenal against the cancer.

Researcher Professor Sandra Gendler said: ‘Cancer cells have a special way of thwarting the immune system by putting sugars on the surface of tumour cells so they can travel around the body without being detected. ‘To enable the immune system to recognise the sugar, it took a special vaccine that had three parts to it. ‘That turned out to be a winning combination.’

Her co-author Professor Geert-Jan Boons said: ‘This vaccine elicits a very strong immune response. ‘It activates all three components of the immune system to reduce tumour size by an average of 80 per cent.’

The misshaped MUC1 sugar is found in 90 per cent of breast and pancreatic cancers and around 60 per cent of prostate cancers, as well as many other tumours. The researchers believe more than 70 per cent of all cancers that kill may be susceptible to the vaccine.

Despite their excitement, the work is still only at an early stage. After the ‘dramatic’ results of the tests on mice with breast tumours, the researchers now plan to try the drug on human cancer cells in a dish.

Years of large-scale human trials would need to follow before the drug was judged safe and effective for widespread use in hospitals. It could then be used with existing drugs to boost treatment and given to prevent tumours from coming back after surgery.

Men and women known to be at high risk of cancer because of their genes could also be vaccinated in an attempt to stop tumours from appearing.

Dr Boons, who has founded a biotech company to commercialise the vaccine, said: ‘We are beginning to have therapies that can teach our immune system to fight what is uniquely found in cancer cells. ‘When combined with early diagnosis, the hope is that one day cancer will become a manageable disease.’

The drug is one of several treatments in the pipeline that work by triggering the immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.

Dr Caitlin Palframan, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: ‘This exciting new approach could lead to treatments for breast cancer patients who have few options. ‘It also opens up the possibility of vaccinating high-risk women against breast cancer in the future. ‘However, we need to see this approach trialled in cancer patients before we know its full potential.’

Oliver Childs, of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘These researchers are not alone in trying to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer – it’s a key area of research interest around the world.

‘This study is interesting, but a long way from a vaccine for cancer patients at the moment. ‘The next step is to see if this work can be repeated in human cells in the lab and then in larger trials with patients.’


Steve Jobs a victim of homeopathy, says expert

ALTERNATIVE medicine is unethical, criminal and likely contributed to the death of Apple boss Steve Jobs, visiting professor Edzard Ernst says. The world's first professor of complementary medicine was in Adelaide yesterday to speak at the Australasian Pharmaceutical Science Association conference at UniSA.

Famous for causing an uproar when, in July, he labelled Prince Charles a "snake oil salesman" for his dandelion and detox remedy, Prof Ernst yesterday spoke of the dangers of unproven complementary medicine.

"They mislead people to the point of being quite dangerous, all of this is idiotic rubbish," he said, calling for more rigorous testing of claims. "Australia is one of the highest user groups globally. About 50 per cent of the general population use some form of complementary medicine."

While he supports evidence-based complementary medicines such as St John's wort, Prof Ernst took aim at homeopathy, aromatherapy, herbal remedies, Bach flower remedies and magnetic therapies.

He said the plethora of misinformation about homeopathy - which treats "like with like" through the dilution of elements - had contributed to deaths, likely including that of Mr Jobs, who died from pancreatic cancer in October.

In his biography of the Apple founder, Walter Isaacson details Jobs' regrets that he turned to alternative therapies when first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003. “I didn’t want my body to be opened…I didn’t want to be violated in that way,” Jobs told Isaacson.

Prof Ernst said too many people were similarly relying on "unproven treatments" for fatal diseases. "Homeopathy is totally under-investigated," he said. "Look at Steve Jobs' cancer death, which is totally tragic."

The problem, he said, was the "monstrous" amount of available misinformation and a lack of regulation and clinical testing. "They should be tested in exactly the same way which we test any other treatment," he said. "There's only one science and there is no alternative to science."

Professor Ernst said claims that these therapies worked, made without proof, were "irresponsible and criminal". He said the science did support specific therapies which were backed by evidence, such as St John's wort.

The professor was this year forced into an early retirement from Exeter University, where he set up the Complementary Medicine and Rehabilitation Department in 1993, after an earlier stoush with the Prince over a confidential report.


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