Could an Ovarian Cancer “Vaccine” Prolong Survival?

scientist with Dropper at laboratory

Researchers are experimenting with a possible vaccine-like treatment for ovarian cancer. Vaccines typically work by teaching your immune system how to fight a specific target, whether it is a bacteria or virus. However, this vaccine, which is still being researched, works differently – with the patient’s own ovarian cancer cells.

Ovarian cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer, often because it isn’t caught until the cancer has reached a more advanced stage. This makes ovarian cancer the fifth leading cause of cancer death, despite only being the ninth most common cancer. Every year, 14,000 women die from ovarian cancer. The later it’s caught, the harder it is to treat.

Using ovarian tumor samples, extracted during the patient’s surgery, researchers treated these tissues with chemicals to make it more immunogenic, exposing potential weaknesses that help the immune system seek and destroy specific cancer cells. These weaknesses were then exposed to each person’s white blood cells, teaching it to fight cancer. The process of developing the personalized vaccine takes seven days.

Dendritic cells play a key role in this process. This is a type of white blood cell that serves as the sentinel for the immune system. If it recognizes a foreign invader, it moves to alert the immune system and recruit other cells designed to attack and kill. By exposing dendritic cells to the tumor’s “weakness” and returning it to the person’s body, the immune system can learn how to fight off any remaining cancer cells that weren’t removed during the surgery, which would lessen the need for chemotherapy and potentially prolong survival.

During the experiment, seven of the 19 patients who were treated with the vaccine showed no measurable signs of cancer by the end of the study after 14 months. Eleven other patients required further treatments that involved taking out infection-fighting T-cells, expanding them and placing them back in the body to keep fighting the cancer. Seven of those patients had stable disease with no signs of cancer recurrence.

The authors of the study noted very few side effects from the vaccines. This research advances the cause for new kinds of cancer treatment. Instead of using chemotherapies, which come with a gamut of side effects, there’s growing evidence that teaching the body’s immune system to fight developing cancers may be the way to go to help the body fight off persistent, metastatic cancer cells.