A so-called "universal cancer vaccine" has been the holy grail of cancer research - a single drug capable of targeting multiple types of cancers, whatever the causes. And while lung cancer, brain cancer, liver cancer and breast cancer may all differ, Israeli scientists claim they've finally developed a drug that targets a specific molecule common to 90% of all cancers.
Preliminary results from early clinical trials have shown the vaccine can trigger an immune response in patients and reduce levels of disease.
The scientists behind the vaccine now hope to conduct larger trials in patients to prove it can be effective against a range of different cancers.
They believe it could be used to combat small tumours if they are detected early enough or to help prevent the return and spread of disease in patients who have undergone other forms of treatment such as surgery.
Cancer cells usually evade patient’s immune systems because they are not recognised as being a threat. While the immune system usually attacks foreign cells such as bacteria, tumours are formed of the patient’s own cells that have malfunctioned.
Scientists have, however, found that a molecule called MUC1, which is found in high amounts on the surface of cancer cells, can be used to help the immune system detect tumours.
The new vaccine, developed by drug company Vaxil Biotheraputics along with researchers at Tel Aviv University, uses a small section of the molecule to prime the immune system so that it can identify and destroy cancer cells.
A statement from Vaxil Biotheraputics said: “ImMucin generated a robust and specific immune response in all patients which was observed after only 2-4 doses of the vaccine out of a maximum of 12 doses.
“In some of the patients, preliminary signs of clinical efficacy were observed.”
The results are still to be formally published but if further trials prove to be successful the vaccine could be available within six years.
As a therapeutic vaccine it is designed to be given to patients who are already suffering from cancer to help their bodies fight off the disease rather than to prevent disease in the first place.
Cancer cells contain high levels of MUC1 as it is thought to be involved helping tumours grow. Healthy human cells also contain MUC1, but have levels that are too low to trigger the immune system after vaccination.