The Baltimore Sun has a six-part series on the research of Dr. Leisha Emens, a Johns Hopkins oncologist working on a vaccine to treat breast cancer.
The series describes in detail, Emens’s pursuit for a breast cancer vaccine. Her research efforts stretch back nearly 20 years and involve testing a combination of an experimental vaccine and low doses of cancer medications.
Forty women with terminal, Stage IV breast cancer have volunteered for the trial. The detailed journeys of four of the women are the core of the series.
While the volunteers may not have much hope, as the odds are against them, they hope the vaccine will prove successful.
As part of a small clinical trial the women are injected with 12 doses of an experimental treatment for Stage IV breast cancer once a month.
Dr. Leisha Emens believes she can train the immune system to attack cancer cells. While the treatment is currently experimental, in the future, this research could lay the foundation for a vaccine to prevent breast cancer.
Although progress has been made, there is no cure, once the cancer has spread. The National Cancer Institute estimates 184,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2008, of them, 41,000 women will die of the disease.
About 90 or more trials for cancer vaccines are currently in the works, including several at Hopkins for cancers of the prostate and pancreas along with leukemia and various others.
The stakes are high and the odds are against this new treatment many have pinned their hopes on. As one patient in Emens’ trial puts it, the patients are “almost dead.”
Most experimental drugs never make it to market. But, this is how new drugs are developed. At the heart of every clinical trial is an extraordinary bargain between the patient and researcher.
Emens is careful not to promise a cure. She is all too familiar with the deadly disease. She lost her mother to breast cancer when she was just a teenager. For Emens, the reward won’t be measured by the amount of women who live longer than most with terminal breast cancer – which tends to be one to two years on average.
It will be measured in the research lab, by blood tests that detect specific immune system responses to the vaccine. Even if the response is not effective in prolonging life, it will give her something to build on in future research.
In another recent study, a new experimental technique called molecular breast imaging (also referred to as MBI) was three times more effective than traditional mammography at detecting breast cancer tumors in women who have dense breast tissue, researchers said.
The study findings were presented at a breast cancer meeting sponsored by the American Society of Clinical Oncology 2008 Breast Cancer Symposium (ASCO) in Washington, D.C. #