Next up for new vaccines: cancer and Alzheimer’s
A vaccine is a preparation that stimulates your immune system to respond against a disease. We have grown accustomed to thinking of a vaccine as a virus (or bacteria) or part of a virus that is “defanged” or inactivated and then introduced into the body to provoke the same kind of immune response that the full-fledged virus would. This in effect “tricks” the body into responding.
But keep in mind a vaccine can be more than just that. In fact, a vaccine means any chemical or biological substance which activates your immune system to fight off the cause of a disease.
MRNA vaccines have received a lot of attention lately because of COVID, but they have actually been studied longer against cancer, and in fact, a recent advance has occurred with the use of an mRNA vaccine against pancreatic cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. In this case, the mRNA (genetic messenger) stimulates immune system T cells to target and fight the cancer cells. Cancer cells typically hide from immune cell detection, but the vaccines hope to overcome this by alerting the immune system to recognize proteins (antigens) on the tumor.
There are already cancer vaccines in use for some advanced cancers, specifically prostate and melanoma. The melanoma vaccine utilizes a herpes virus to induce an immune response against advanced melanoma. It has recently been studied and been found to be effective when combined with standard immunotherapy (Keytruda).
Cancer vaccine research is exciting and promising, and the use of mRNA vaccines safely and successfully in billions throughout the pandemic has bolstered interest and provided needed real-world information. Research for mRNA-based cancer vaccines including for lung cancer, colorectal cancers, breast and ovarian cancer is proceeding rapidly. Amazon is partnering with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to work on developing cancer vaccines.
Vaccine research is going beyond potential uses for infections and cancer. In fact, Alzheimer’s vaccines are also looking more promising. There are several in the works that target the abnormal proteins (beta amyloid and tau) associated with Alzheimer’s Disease and prevent their buildup.
In the world of heart disease, an enzyme known as PCSK9 leads to high cholesterol, and inhibiting it with monoclonal antibodies (now in use) or vaccinating against it with RNA both appear to be sound strategies.
Vaccines are among the greatest public health inventions, and it is a tragedy that they have been so politicized, and their lifesaving use undermined. Whether the vaccine is preventing disease altogether or lessening its impact, the results may be lifesaving. The HPV vaccine, though it prevents an infection that may lead to cancer of the cervix, is considered a cancer vaccine and is quite effective at decreasing the risk of this and other related cancers.
When it comes to coronavirus vaccines, there are several in development that may prove useful against more than just COVID. Research is ongoing on technologies that target more than just the spike protein of the virus. These include nasal barrier vaccines, being developed by Dr. Akiko Iwasaki at Yale and others. This approach holds the promise of preventing transmission of a respiratory virus entirely, something the MRNA vaccines did effectively against the early strains but much less so against the emerging omicron subvariants.
In the future, we will have vaccines that you can lick or place on your arm with a patch or inhale or swallow rather than have injected. And they will cover and prevent a multitude of diseases, not just the pandemic subvariant of the moment.
Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, “COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”
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