Experimental cancer vaccine offers hope

November 4, 2009 3:23:22 PM PST
There is an exciting new report on cancer control. An experimental vaccine succeeded in reversing a difficult-to-treat early cancer in women. It could lead to a new way of thinking about treating some cancers. The study with this experimental vaccine is reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. The key word is "reversing," as doctors in Holland were able to reverse early pre-cancerous lesions in women with a genital cancer.

Catching early cancers is the reason for women get a yearly gynecological exams. Doctors can swab the cervix to test for cervical cancers and they and can visually exam the vulva, the external genital area, for signs of early cancer.

Vulvar cancer is rare, but can be caused by HPV, the human pappilloma virus. An estimated 20 million women carry silent HPV infections, according to the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Most infections resolve themselves, but a few can slowly develop into cancers.

"A lot of women don't know they have HPV," said Dr. Kathryn Teng, of the Cleveland Clinic. "It's a silent disease. But they may be at higher risk for getting vulvar or cervical cancer."

When these pre-cancers are caught during gynecological exams, they are treated with either laser or surgery. Treatment can be painful or uncomfortable and, more importantly, these pre-cancers still can return and develop into invasive cancers. The women in the study had an early vulvar cancer, interepithelial neoplasia.

"Vulvar, or interepithelial neoplasia, is mostly treated with surgery and removals of the lesions, but eventually they can return, as they tend to grow back," Dr. Teng said.

In the study, 20 women with vulvar cancer were treated with the experimental vaccine, called HPV SLP. Three-fourths of the women showed an immune response and by two years later, almost half of the women were completely disease-free.

A vaccine to reverse a cancer is an exciting prospect, Dr. Teng said.

"Hopefully, we'll be seeing more new technology to help us fight cancer and to fight other diseases," she said.

The researchers are now trying this vaccine with cervical cancer. One word of caution from the experts: the results will have to be proven in larger studies before they can be used with the public. But experts in this field are excited about the future possibility of treating these pre-cancerous lesions with a simple vaccine injection.



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