Houston, we have a vaccine…

Well, not officially, but the initial studies sure look promising.

Front-page news today in Houston declares that researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center right here in my fine city have good things to say about results from an experimental vaccine. The researchers are hailing the potential vaccine as “a promising developement in an emerging field in cancer care.”

M.D. Anderson nurse Sara Stassen working on AE37

Sounds mighty good to me.

Much has been written on the blogosphere about finding a cure — or, more accurately, the utter lack of progress in finding a cure — for this disease that fells one in eight women in the United States each year. The statistics are scary, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’s been touched by breast cancer. And by “touched by” I mean gobsmacked by. It’s a vicious, insidious, relentless disease, and in the decades of research, precious little progress has been made in finding a way to eradicate breast cancer.

All of that could change, however, with this potential vaccine.

It’s not too early to celebrate, is it?

Its focus is significantly reducing breast cancer recurrence. So it won’t eradicate the disease itself, but may (hopefully, please please please, fingers crossed, with sugar and a cherry on top) prevent women who have had BC from suffering a recurrence. Once BC comes back, no matter what stage it initially was or how effective the treatments were, you proceed straight to Stage IV and are considered incurable. That’s not to say the cancer can’t be managed, because it can, but it will never be cured. And therein lies the promise of this new potential vaccine.

I’ve gotten to know many Stage IV BC gals in the blogosphere, and their struggle is rough, to say the least. Ongoing treatment, escalating side-effects and financial burdens, and hopelessness are common in their fight. Not to mention mortality. Up front and in your face with Stage IV BC is mortality, in sharper focus and with a shorter shelf-life than ever imagined.

As one of the “lucky ones” in the cancer world considering my type of BC is lazy, slow-growing, and non-aggressive (touch wood here for good measure), I have a low recurrence rate. At least according to the charts and graphs and stats. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it every single day, fear it and dread it. Even though I’m “lucky” and for all intents & purposes my cancer is gone, as I’ve learned from the brave cancerchicks who’ve gone boldly into the night before me, it’s never over, and the fear of recurrence is always there.


That’s where Dr Elizabeth Mittendorf comes in. She’s a professor of oncology at M.D. Anderson and this study’s chief investigator. She says that cancer researchers such as herself are “in the dawn of a new era” as they manipulate the immune system to recognize cancer cells and prevent or treat the disease.

The potential vaccine, called AE37, trains the body’s immune system to attack the infamous HER2 protein, which helps tumors grow and which is present in the vast majority of BC. One of the most important factors in a BC diagnosis is whether the cancer is HER2 positive or HER2 negative. Upon diagnosis, one waits to hear that HER2 status. HER2 positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and harder to treat. The hope with AE37 is that the proteins that make up HER2 will be taken down. Dr Mittendorf says, “If some rogue tumor cell is floating around, AE37 can recognize it and take care of it before it can settle into bone or other parts of the body. It’ll teach the T cells to recognize that HER2 protein. So the thought would be that if the T cells were educated in this way, if the tumor cell were to come back, the immune system could identify it, attack it and destroy it before the patient would have, as we see, a measurable recurrence.”

The beauty of AE37 is that it may be helpful in fighting other types of cancer as well. Because HER2 proteins occur in prostate, ovarian, and gastric cancers as well as in breast cancers, AE37 has a lot of potential across the board. For “lucky” breast cancer gals who are HER2 negative, like me, the potential vaccine may still be helpful. Dr Mittendorf is excited that the vaccine seems to reduce the risk of recurrent breast cancer in women who had both high and low levels of HER2. Mittendorf and her team studied 201 patients whose average age was 50 and who had previously had BC but who are currently cancer-free. Half of them received the vaccine, while the other half did not, and the initial results are encouraging. Mittendorf says, “We projected that breast cancer would come back for 10.3 percent of the women who got the vaccine compared with 18 percent of the women who had not been vaccinated. That translates to a 43 percent reduced risk of recurrent breast cancer.”

While AE37 won’t replace the traditional treatments — mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation — it could become part of standard care and would likely work in combination with the weapons currently used against the disease. The vaccine is given once a month for 6 months and then every 6 months for 3 years. While AE37 needs some fine-tuning, and a longer-term study would yield more information into its potential, this is very good, extremely hopeful news for those of us in the BC trenches. The fact that it may be able to cut recurrence rates nearly in half makes me giddy. The fact that this important research is taking place in my city is an added bonus. Kinda makes me want to run on down to Anderson and deliver some fresh-baked cookies to Mittendorf and her team. Just a little token of my appreciation for all their hard work. Should I make chocolate chip or snickerdoodles? In this case, I think I’ll make both. 

26 Comments on “Houston, we have a vaccine…”

  1. As soon as I saw the title of your blog, I stopped what I was doing to read it. This is really encouraging news. Personally, I’d take the cookies as well as that fabulous bottle of Piper Sonoma (I’m a fellow champagne aficionado). Thanks for cluing us in about this.


    • Hi Brenda! I’ll share a bottle of Piper with you any day! Perhaps a future segment for your upcoming talk show: champagnes and the women who love them? 😉

  2. David Benbow says:

    Definitely reason to pop a cork! Cheers to you!

  3. Eddie says:

    That is really exciting news. I know there is no panacea and AE37 doesn’t treat all cancers and will probably have some unforseen side effects, but it’s nice to see progress from the cure/prevention side. For too long cancer research has been solely about treatment, remediation after the disaster if you will, which created an atmosphere of resignation wherein we accepted developing cancer and hoped to treat it. Pop the cork! This is worthy of bubbly.

  4. Trevor Hicks says:

    You’re, uh, going to maybe save a few of those cookies? Actually, I was looking also at that newspaper pic and that wedge burger looks mighty good. For $5.99, but the location is obscured by the booze. When is lunch?

    Seriously though, that’s a great article and tremendous to see a meaningful impact. Unfortunately this just sets the stage to start another phase of testing for the FDA. The source article doesn’t speculate when this therapy will be commercially available, but we can assume that’s still years away. What’s the cost of more testing?

    Let’s do the math, there are 225,000 new cases of breast cancer per year in the US. Let’s make some conservative assumptions. First, let’s say this therapy is only useful for about 1/4 of them, so chop that down to 50,000 patients. The study estimated recurrence rates were reduced by 8 percentage points, from 18 to 10 percent, let’s say it’s only going to prevent 5 percentage points of recurrence. Under these assumptions, that’s still 2500 cases of recurrence per year that we are going to accept while the therapy continues to be tested.

    Don’t get me wrong, this back-of-the-envelope figuring doesn’t mean it’s crazy to test the drug a little more. There are all kinds of reasons to test more – ensure the original protocols were done properly, see if the results can be reproduced, look for longer term side effects, assess the proper target of the therapy and its cost. My point was simply to show that all these other benefits have a cost, and that’s a big cost measured in lost lives. I hope it’s worth it.

  5. Jan Baird says:

    Nancy, this is incredibly encouraging news. Unlike your tumor, mine is HER-2 positive, so any advancements in that area just thrill me. And the fact that this vaccine works on both types of tumors is a godsend. Wow! Make both types of cookies. These researchers deserve them! xx

  6. I got my glass chilling now….. and the bottle is on ice, too. We just need to take ONE step in a DIFFERENT direction to get the ball rolling. ONE.SINGLE.STEP.


  7. Break out the champagne! Happy days are here again 🙂

  8. Staci says:

    Nothing better than baking fresh cookies for a deserving recipient with FANTASTIC news!!

  9. It’s wonderful to hear about this sort of progress. And if I know ANYTHING about researchers, they always welcome freshly made baked goods. 😉 Catherine

  10. Jody Hicks says:

    Leave it to my son, the math whiz, to come up with the odds! Not having read the article, I’m making some assumptions: However, if they’ve already shown a 43% reduction in recurrence, and determined that it’s safe to try in humans, perhaps they’ve been approved for Phase 3 testing, and since you live there you might be able to participate. Those cookies could go a long way!

  11. Mandi says:

    That is pretty cool about the vaccine! Mmmm cookies!

  12. Jessica says:

    Thank you Susan G. Komen for funding this work.

  13. […] background-color:#222222; background-repeat : repeat; } pinkunderbelly.com – Today, 9:49 […]

  14. Jayne Lovisek says:

    Is there any way to ask some questions to the team doing this research?

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