Unique vaccine shows promise in battling ovarian cancer
March 15, 1998
Web posted at: 11:14 p.m. EST (0414 GMT)
From Reporter Louise Schiavone
PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- About 20,000 cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year. Through surgery and chemotherapy, some women are able to beat the disease, but they are in the minority.
Less than half of those struck by ovarian cancer live for five or more years after the illness is detected. But now doctors in Philadelphia are trying a new treatment that, though still in the early stages of testing, holds out new promise.
Patients are being treated with a vaccine made from their own cancer cells. Dr. David Berd, a medical oncologist at Thomas Jefferson University, developed the treatment 10 years ago for those suffering from malignant melanoma. The technique appears to have boosted average life expectancy of 300 melanoma patients treated in clinical trials.
"For the last year, we've been extending this to other cancers, and so far the area that we had the most experience (with) is ovarian cancer," Berd said.
Vaccines are custom made, drawn from cancer cells taken from tumors removed in surgery.
Each vaccine is made using tumor cells from the patient
Cancer cells are placed in plastic vials and frozen. They're then treated with a chemical called hapten, or DNP, which makes them foreign enough to the body to spur an immune defense.
Each dose of the vaccine is prepared for the patient on the day they go in for their shots -- a set of three shots once a week for six weeks, followed by booster shots at six months and one year.
Gynecological oncologist Dr. Charles Dunton of Jefferson Medical College says early tests, similar to allergy skin pricks, on six ovarian cancer patients suggest that the vaccines are energizing patients' bodies to attack the cancer cells.
However, he says the traditional treatments of surgery and chemotherapy must come first.
"I tell patients (that) we want to be aggressive, we want to use aggressive surgery, we want to use the best chemotherapy that we have available today," he said.
Would a vaccine made to fight one type of cancer battle other cancers in the same individual? Berd says that is unlikely.
"The theory that I subscribe to is that every cancer is different, and it's also possible that every cancer in every patient is different," he said.
Extensive trials of the technique are still far off, as are long-term results from these first studies. It will also have to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
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