Providence tests vaccine against recurrence of breast cancer

It’s been a long-time goal in the fight against cancer: Using the body’s own immune system to fight the disease.

Everett’s Providence Regional Cancer Partnership is one of 13 sites nationally that is testing whether a vaccine, in combination with another medication, is effective in preventing a recurrence in certain types of breast cancer.

They hope to recruit about 50 women to participate in the study. The patients they seek must have low-to-moderate amounts of the HER2 protein present in their cancer.

Currently women with high amounts of HER2 protein are given a drug called Herceptin to try to prevent recurrence. That’s about 25 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer, said Dr. Jason Lukas, an oncologist at the cancer partnership.

The medical study being conducted in Everett and other sites nationally is to see if this drug, in combination with a vaccine, is effective in preventing a recurrence of breast cancer in women who have low-to-moderate presence of the protein in their tumors.

The vaccine is made in part from the HER2 protein and a drug that stimulates the production of white blood cells.

If the study results show that the combination treatment is effective in preventing breast cancer recurrence, it would be a major step in battling the disease, Lukas said.

The recurrence rate in women who have low-to-moderate amounts of HER2 protein depends on the size of the tumor when they are diagnosed, from a low of 10 percent to as high as 60 percent, he said.

The tests that will be conducted in Everett are the phase 2 trials, or second step tests of the medications. Initial tests involving small groups of women have shown some positive results, dropping the recurrence rate 15 to 20 percent, Lukas said.

“There’s been vaccines tried for other types of solid tumors, but they haven’t yet shown as much potential,” Lukas said. “This is the one where the data seem to be the most compelling.”

The study will document whether women are disease-free 24 months after receiving the treatments.

Some women participating in the study will receive Herception alone. Others will get Herceptin plus the vaccine. Patients will be treated with Herception every three weeks for one year, beginning no later than 12 weeks after completing standard chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

The vaccine treatments will begin with shots every three weeks for a total of six. After that, booster shots are given 12, 18, 24 and 30 months later.

Everett is the only cancer center in Washington participating in the study. Other sites include the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and the Katzen Cancer Research Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Lukas said he and another doctor first began exploring the idea of a vaccine to prevent some types of breast cancer recurrence while he was in the Navy. An Army physician they knew also was working to develop the same idea.

Once all three left the military, they worked to launch a national study of the technique, Lukas said.

Vaccines work with the immune system to fight disease. People get cancer because the body’s immune system, for whatever reason, fails to attack it.

The hope is that the vaccine will help Herceptin to work even more effectively, said Marilyn Birchman, clinical research manager at Providence Regional Cancer Partnership.

“It would be nice to have a therapy that’s targeting the breast cancer, with so many less dire effects,” she said. “It’s targeting that cancer cell essentially, and much less toxic than chemotherapy.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;

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