You might have seen this news come across your dashboard, Twitter feed or Facebook wall (via The Telegraph):

"Universal Cancer Vaccine Developed"

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s not true, despite tens of thousands of shares on social networks. I’m not a buzzkill, I promise. I’m just a science guy with a frustrating attachment to reality. So what’s behind the story?

What is true:

  • Israeli scientists are trying to create a vaccine against a molecule that’s expressed on the outside of 90% of known cancer cell types.
  • The molecule, called MUC1, is a sugar-protein that helps cells form outer structure, and the version of MUC1 on cancer cells is different from normal cells.
  • A vaccine that let the body learn to attack only the bad MUC1 could turn the immune system against cancers before they got out of control while not harming healthy cells.

Here’s what is exaggerated:

  • While many cancers express this mutant MUC1, even a single tumor can have huge, complex diversity in its genes. That usually means that therapies that attack only one cancerous change or mutation will leave behind some small population of unaffected, dangerous cells.
  • Vaccines, even against viruses, rarely show 100% effectiveness. It’s really important to remember that cancers continue to evolve as a tumor grows. And even one cell that doesn’t get killed by this method could grow into a tumor all on its own.
  • This is not the first drug therapy that has tried to exploit MUC1 as a target. The clinical trial here is of 10 patients, and only one cancer type. There are 30 other trials of other MUC1 therapies going on, some that are closer to finishing.
  • If something like this was really a “Universal Cancer Vaccine”, wouldn’t it go into Science or Nature or The Lancet instead of The Telegraph?

That being said, it’s a good example of trying to find a way that cancer cells differ from normal cells and using the body’s own machinery to kill the tumor before it even gets big enough to be detected by doctors. It’s also an example of science news hype pulled straight from a press release (something called “churnalism”).

But cancer is not a universal disease, and likewise no cancer treatment will ever be universal.

Another incredible piece of imaging - shows a T-cell attacking a cancer cell-but this one has an interesting background story.

It relates to the use of cancer vaccines which act to boost the body’s immune system in order to combat cancer which is already present in the body as opposed to protecting against the development of cancer altogether.

ImMucin, a product produced by Vaxil, activates the immune system by training T-cells to search out and destroy cells that display a specific marker not found on healthy cells. 

T-cells won’t attack cells that don’t display the cancer marker, meaning there are no side effects. More than 90% of different cancers have the MUC1 marker which indicates the vaccines potential in terms of safer, more effective and targeted treatment.

Had the awesome experience working in the studio with the most magical person @hellomynameisbrady this summer semester! Hope to even make more magic with the rest of the two weeks! #cello #muc1 #brady #magic #fun #summer (Norco College에서)

Merck Discontinues Clinical Development Program of Tecemotide as a Monotherapy in Stage III Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
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DARMSTADT, Germany, Sept. 12, 2014 /PRNewswire/ —

Not intended for UK-based media 

Merck announced today that its biopharmaceutical division Merck Serono will discontinue the clinical development program of its investigational MUC1 antigen-specific cancer immunotherapy tecemotide (also known as L-BLP25) as a monotherapy in Stage III non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Luciano Rossetti, Global Head of Research & Development at Merck Serono, said: “While the data from the exploratory subgroup analysis in the START trial[1] generated a reasonable hypothesis to warrant additional study, the results of the recent trial in Japanese patients decreased the probability of current studies to reach their goals. Therefore, we have decided to discontinue the development of tecemotide as a monotherapy in NSCLC in order to refocus our efforts on other promising candidates in our pipeline, like our anti-PD-L1 antibody MSB0010718C. Merck Serono remains committed to developing new treatment options for patients with difficult-to-treat cancers.”

The company’s decision to discontinue the current clinical program in NSCLC, which includes the Phase III START2 and INSPIRE studies, follows recent results from a planned analysis of EMR 63325-009, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase I/II study in Japanese patients with Stage III unresectable, locally advanced NSCLC who had received concurrent or sequential chemoradiotherapy (CRT), with a minimum of two cycles of platinum-based chemotherapy and radiation dose ≥50 Gy. Of the patients included in the Phase II part of the study, the majority had received concurrent CRT. The results indicate that no effect has been observed for either the primary endpoint, overall survival (OS), or for any of the secondary endpoints (progression-free survival [PFS], time to progression [TTP] and time to treatment failure). An analysis of the reported adverse events has not identified a clinically meaningful difference in the frequency between treatment groups. Although the trial was not powered to demonstrate a statistically significant difference in benefit between the two arms, Merck Serono made the recommendation to stop the investigational treatment for patients in the EMR 63325-009 study in Japan.

Merck Serono has made the decision to discontinue all other Merck Serono-sponsored clinical trials with tecemotide in NSCLC worldwide. Those patients on active treatment with tecemotide can undergo an individual assessment by their treating physician and apply to receive further treatment outside of the studies. The company will continue to supply tecemotide for ongoing investigator-sponsored trials in other indications in accordance with Merck’s agreements with the sponsors of these studies.

Merck Serono continues to evaluate a number of investigational compounds for difficult-to-treat cancers, and remains committed to improving the lives of cancer patients and their families.


  1. Butts C, et al. Lancet Oncol 2014;15(1):59-68.

About tecemotide 

Tecemotide is an investigational MUC1 antigen-specific cancer immunotherapy that is designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to identify and target cells expressing the cell-surface glycoprotein MUC1. MUC1 is expressed in many cancers, including NSCLC, and has multiple roles in tumor growth and survival. Tecemotide was being investigated in the Phase III START2, START and INSPIRE trials for the treatment of unresectable, locally advanced Stage III NSCLC.

Merck obtained the exclusive worldwide rights for development and commercialization of tecemotide from Oncothyreon Inc., Seattle, Washington, U.S., in 2007, in an agreement replacing prior collaboration and supply agreements originally entered in 2001. In Japan, Merck entered into a co-development and co-marketing agreement for tecemotide with Ono Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd., Osaka, Japan.

The START2 study is a Phase III, multicenter, 1:1 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to assess the efficacy, safety and tolerability of tecemotide in patients suffering from unresectable, locally advanced (Stage IIIA or IIIB) NSCLC who have had a response or stable disease after at least two cycles of platinum-based concurrent CRT. Concurrent CRT - a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy given at the same time - is the current standard of care for most of these patients. The study, which began in April 2014, expected to recruit about 1,000 patients. The study’s primary endpoint is OS. Secondary endpoints include time to symptom progression, PFS and TTP.

The basis for the START2 trial was the outcome of the initial START study. START did not meet the primary endpoint of demonstrating an improved OS with tecemotide compared with placebo in the overall patient population (n=1,239). Median OS was 25.6 months for patients in the tecemotide group compared with 22.3 months for those in the placebo group (adjusted hazard ratio [HR]: 0.88; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.75-1.03; p=0.123). However, data from an exploratory analysis of a pre-defined subgroup of patients in the START trial, who received tecemotide after concurrent CRT, showed that these patients achieved a median OS of 30.8 months versus 20.6 months in patients treated with placebo (n=806; HR: 0.78; 95% CI: 0.64-0.95; p=0.016).

INSPIRE is a Phase III, multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to evaluate the efficacy, safety and tolerability of tecemotide in patients suffering from unresectable, locally advanced Stage IIIA or IIIB NSCLC who have had a response or stable disease after at least two cycles of platinum-based concurrent CRT. INSPIRE expected to recruit approximately 500 Stage III NSCLC patients across mainland China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

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Merck is a leading company for innovative and top-quality high-tech products in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors. With its four divisions Merck Serono, Consumer Health, Performance Materials and Merck Millipore, Merck generated total revenues of € 11.1 billion in 2013. Around 39,000 Merck employees work in 66 countries to improve the quality of life for patients, to further the success of our customers and to help meet global challenges. Merck is the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company - since 1668, the company has stood for innovation, business success and responsible entrepreneurship. Holding an approximately 70% interest, the founding family remains the majority owner of the company to this day. Merck, Darmstadt, Germany is holding the global rights to the Merck name and brand. The only exceptions are Canada and the United States, where the company is known as EMD.

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