"We have developed a vaccine to prevent breast cancer!" No, you're not seeing things. These were the exact words expressed by Dr. Vincent Tuohy, immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, who announced the development of his breakthrough breast cancer vaccine earlier this month to a small gathering of noted physicians, scientists, academe and media during the "Global Burden of Women's Cancer" presentation hosted by The Loreen Arbus Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
And while many of us present that day could also not believe our ears, nor hold back our tears, these tears of hope were perhaps best expressed by one woman in particular, who arrived just before the presentation began to gently announce that she, too, had recently been diagnosed with the disease, and had just undergone her first chemotherapy treatment. "I was told I have the 'triple negative type,'" she whispered, "but I'm not sure what that means."
While the "triple negative type" is not a term familiar to the general population, it was certainly one that many of us in attendance would not soon forget. "Yes, this is the most serious kind, with a 70 percent survival rate and no form of treatment," Dr. Touhy said, "That is," he continued, "until now."
As Dr. Touhy proceeded to describe the strides that he and his research team at the Cleveland Clinic have made in the development of this groundbreaking vaccine and treatment, sighs of relief quickly blanketed the room, but only until we learned more about the challenges and obstacles that remain. "Although $50 billion is spent on breast cancer research, and while this disease results in a woman's diagnosis every 20 seconds and one death every minute, only 2 percent of this total amount is actually spent on prevention of the disease," added Dr. Kathleen Ruddy, founder and president of the Breast Health and Healing Foundation.
And this characterizes the main frustration Dr. Touhy and his team have been encountering. "The current paradigm in the medical community is that we wait for the disease to happen, and when it does, we become offensive and try to beat the daylights out of it," Dr. Tuohy says. "But I always felt that there should be a way to address this from an autoimmune perspective."
Over the past 10 years, Dr. Tuohy and his team have therefore conducted research studies using three different mice models, whereby none of the mice injected with the vaccine developed any tumors at the end of the testing period. So, with results like these, what is standing in the way of taking this vaccine from the lab to clinical trials with humans? "Funding," Dr. Tuohy is quick to respond. "Rather than getting support, we're getting resistance. Many in the medical community don't want to believe I have actually discovered a vaccine, so they say say they won't support us until we prove the vaccine and treatment's effectiveness in humans, but we can't do that until we receive the funding to test it in humans," Tuohy continues. "Meanwhile, women are continuing to be diagnosed and many are losing their lives."
And for women who are the most vulnerable, these numbers are even higher. "There is a strong connection between status in society and mortality from breast cancer," added Dr. Ana Langer, Professor of the Practice of Public Health and Coordinator of the Dean's Special Initiative in Women and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. "In 2012, 50 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer living in under-developed countries lost their lives," she continued. But even in this country, many women are facing their own set of unique challenges. "Women of lower socio-economic status tend to undergo fewer mammographies ," she continued, "and for many women who are disabled, just staying still long enough to undergo a mammography is sometimes impossible."
Each of these challenges suggests increased need for the vaccine, but Tuohy says that gaining funding is still far from real. "We could make eventually the vaccine available if we can get the funding we need now," he says. "And I know we must be on to something since I'm receiving a lot of anger from the medical community... which means I must be right."
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an Educational Psychologist and Founder/Publisher of Work Life Matters magazine.
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