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.