Cancer Vaccines and Its Breakthroughs


James Chang

Drawing of a cancer cell being attacked

Andrew Wang, Science and Tech Writer

Cancer is an omnipresent aspect of our lives that almost every person has encountered directly or indirectly by way of a loved one or acquaintance. The earliest cancer growths in humans have been found in Egyptian and Peruvian mummies dating back to 1500 BC. Despite its presence since ancient times and even with humanity’s best efforts, a definitive cure is still undiscovered. However, this may change with the recent breakthrough of a new cell therapy approach designed to eliminate tumors and induce long-term immunity to cancer. 

Scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital are using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, to repurpose cancer cells to recognize and kill tumor cells. CRISPR has been used to treat certain cancer variants since 2022. 

Elwyn Cabebe, the Director of Oncology and Quality for the Stanford University Healthcare Alliance, explains the use of CRISPR in cancer research. 

“Researchers can use CRISPR gene editing to alter the DNA of human cells like a very precise and easy-to-use pair of scissors,” Cabebe said. “Altered immune cells will recognize mutated proteins specific to a person’s tumors, which can be safely set loose in the body to find and destroy their target.”

Despite CRISPR’s practical use in treating cancer, there are still various hurdles it must overcome to become fully applicable. 

Cabebe explains a significant side-effect from treatment using gene-edited cancer cells. 

“A systemic inflammatory response caused by stimulants released by dysfunctional T cells can lead to organ dysfunction,” Cabebe said. 

Even taking into consideration its potential drawbacks, CRISPR gene editing has already revolutionized cancer research and treatment for certain cancer patients. 

 “This kind of cell therapy has been successful in refractory lymphoma and leukemia patients,” Cabebe said. “It has been able to allow heavily treated cancer patients to achieve remission from their disease.”

Remission, the temporary or permanent disappearance of disease symptoms, is the primary goal of researchers who are designing these cancer vaccines. The mentioned breakthrough using CRISPR would not only induce remission but could also establish long-term immunity to certain types of cancer. 

Cabebe explains how a cancer vaccine would revolutionize population health. 

“It would be a miracle,” Cabebe said. “We would have the opportunity for the prevention of cancers depending on what the vaccine targets. Vaccines, in many forms, have recently been instrumental in cancer research.”

As surreal as it sounds, a cancer vaccine may be on the horizon. The emergence of CRISPR has bolstered research in many fields of medicine, including cancer, which affects two million people in the United States each year. Hopefully, the initial success of repurposed cancer cells extends into the near future, where it may become applicable for commercial use.