Lung cancer accounts for about 13% of all cancer cases around the world today and about 19% of annual cancer deaths. Treating lung cancer can be difficult, due to the sensitive nature of the tissue and the 5 year survival rate is very much dependent on when the cancer was detected. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are options, but even patients who were diagnosed and treated at stage IA only have a 49% chance of beating the disease. Once lung cancer hits Stage III, surgery is no longer an option and any treatment can only come from radiation and chemotherapy.
In order to increase the efficacy of these cancer treatments, a vaccine was developed to boost the immune system, which is markedly weakened by the harsh chemotherapy drugs. This vaccine has been studied for some time, with some studies appearing more promising than others. The most recent study was completed by researchers at UC Davis and showed that mice who received the tecemotide vaccine along with certain chemotherapy drugs and radiation had fewer tumors than those who only received the conventional treatment. The results were published in the journal Cancer Immunology Research.
The vaccine works by targeting the protein MUC1, which (under normal circumstances) lines epithelial cells and binds pathogens before they can infect the cell. In cancer, this protein tends to get overexpressed, and the cancer cells can essentially use it like a forcefield to hide from chemotherapy drugs and the body’s natural anti-tumor immune response. Tecemotide stimulates the immune factors that create MUC1-targeted killer T-lymphocytes, which essentially lower the shields and allow the cell to be attacked.
The study showed that tecemotide and the chemotherapeutic agent cisplatin were each capable of reducing the number of tumors on their own, but when they were combined, the effect was much greater. Even after receiving radiation therapy, the immune response did not suffer.
It is important to note that as of right now, curing the patient of lung cancer is not a realistic end goal for tecemotide. Instead, it is hoped that the vaccine could extend both the quantity and quality of life for those with lung cancer. Lead author of the paper Michael DeGregorio said in a press release: “We believe this vaccine could be coupled with standard treatments to create a maintenance therapy. If we can help patients with a life expectancy of 18 to 20 months increase that to 30 months or more, with a high quality of life, that’s a big benefit.”