Inching towards the cancer vaccine

Cancer. Who comes to mind when you hear the word? A parent? A lover? A friend? Regardless of how cancer has impacted your life, a cure for cancer is something society has always strived for. Now, thanks to the brilliant minds at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, we are all one step closer to achieving that goal and potentially developing a vaccine for the disease.

In a recent study published by Nature, Josef Penninger and his team of scientists identified a key mechanism, which would allow the body’s own immune system to fend off cancer without the need for chemotherapy. How you ask? Well, it primarily involves activating Natural Killer (NK) cells in the body. While they sound dangerous, these NK cells are really the good guys, acting like your body’s personal security guards.

As Dr. Gavins Sacks at IVF Australia simply put it, “NK cells are the main type of immune cells that protect our bodies from invasion, infection and cancer.”

By decreasing the Cbl-b enzyme in mice test subjects, Penninger discovered that NK cells were “activated” and far more effective at inhibiting the spread of cancer than when enzyme levels were normal. This grants the body’s natural immune system the extra boost required to adequately fight against cancer and extend life in patients. Unlike grueling chemotherapy treatments that indiscriminately kill all rapidly dividing cells (a primary trait amongst cancer cells as well as many healthy cells), erasing Cbl-b in the body has no harmful side effects.

Imagine, cancer treatment without having to undergo arduous chemotherapy. No more nausea, vomiting or hair loss. More importantly, patients would no longer have to risk suffering from the plethora of debilitating side effects, such as organ damage or infertility.

As Dr. Martin Tallman’s of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center told Time magazine, “We are definitely moving farther and farther away from chemotherapy.”

Even more promising is the fact that researchers in the study identified that the drug Warfarin (traditionally used to stop blood from clotting) influences NK cells in a similar way to the loss of Cbl-b. This has the potential of laying the foundations for the development of a vaccine that could be mass-produced. This brings hope for the future where immunity from cancer will be as simple and routine as getting an injection for chickenpox, measles or polio.


The results of this study are truly groundbreaking; up until now, research on cancer vaccines has been riddled with problems. From underwhelming immune responses to far more dangerous effects, Penninger’s study has overcome hurdles on both these fronts and will hopefully serve to sway detractors who had previously stated, “A vaccine that thwarts cancer cells has so far proved to be better in theory than in practice.” 

Forecasted start year: 
2019 to 2025


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