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Promising new vaccine could use your own cells to fight breast cancer

Laura Bogart's work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Tin House, SPIN, Indiewire, GOOD, and Refinery 29 (among other publications). She has also worked in health care communications.

Could a vaccine of your own cells be an option for treating early-stage breast cancer?

A new vaccine is bringing in a tiny yet incredibly powerful ally against breast cancer: our own cells.

Researchers from the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, are testing a new vaccine that could potentially activate the body’s immune system cells to target the HER2 protein on breast cancer cells in early-stage breast cancer patients.

More: 7 things to know about the new groundbreaking breast cancer treatment

HER2 proteins (which are created by the HER2 gene) are receptors on breast tissue, meaning that they generally control how breast cells grow, divide and repair themselves. Sometimes, though, the HER2 gene operates in excess and creates too many receptors — which, in turn, make the breast cells grow and divide without control. This occurs in about 25 percent of breast cancer cases; these cases, called HER2-positive breast cancers, generally spread faster and have a higher rate of recurrence than HER2-negative breast cancers.

Previous research has suggested that part of the reason that HER2-positive cancers offer such poor prognosis is because our bodies’ immune cells have difficulty recognizing and targeting HER2-positive breast cancer cells. The teams at the Moffitt Cancer Center wanted to develop a treatment that would help to stimulate these immune system cells.

More: Young breast cancer survivor bares her scars in powerful photos

They created their vaccines by harvesting a particular type of immune system cell called a dendritic cell from early-stage patients. These individualized cells were then exposed to fragments of the HER2 protein — think of a bloodhound taking that initial sniff of the fugitive she’ll be chasing — so they could more effectively recognize them in the body.

Patients received their highly personalized vaccine for six weeks, and initial results seem promising. According to a Science News report on the study, “approximately 80 percent of evaluable patients had a detectable immune response.”

More: Breast cancer in men is no myth — here's what you need to know

Our own cells could be our greatest secret weapon against cancer.

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