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New Breast Cancer Vaccine Being Tested in Europe

Small group of U.K., Danish women trying therapy, which stimluates immune system to fight disease

THURSDAY, March 21, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A new breast cancer vaccine is now being tested in a small group of women in Great Britain and Denmark, European researchers disclosed yesterday.

That announcement came amidst a flurry of other promising developments presented this week at the Third European Breast Cancer Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Highlights of the meeting included an "optical detection" system for early diagnosis of breast tumors; a novel way to predict which breast abnormalities will become malignant; a microchip that may help doctors stop invasive breast cancer from developing; a new way of delivering radiation therapy; smart drugs that stop cancer before it starts, and new data on how HRT may affect breast cancer diagnosis.

The potential vaccine -- known as Auto-Vac -- targets the tumor growth factor known as HER-2, present in excessive amounts in almost a quarter of all breast cancer patients. Because HER-2 is also found in small amounts in normal tissue, the immune system doesn't recognize the excess as something to be destroyed. This, researchers said, is where the vaccine may help.

"The objective of our vaccine is to stimulate the patient's own immune system, and to see whether we can induce it to launch specific killer cells, as well as producing HER-2 specific antibodies," said Denmark's Dr. Dana Leech, who addressed the international press group.

The new study, which involves 27 women with advanced breast cancer, will involve three injections of the vaccine, with results expected before the end of the year.

There was more good news at the conference.

Researchers from University College in London introduced a new way to tell the difference between malignant and non-malignant tissue without surgery.

The system, known as "optical detection," involves shining tiny pulses of harmless white light onto breast tissue. The scattered light patterns are sent back to a meter that records the wavelengths, which are later analyzed on a computer. The result is an "optical signature" of the tissue that is then compared with "signatures" of both normal and malignant tissue.

By comparing patterns, doctors can tell whether the tissue being examined is likely to be normal or malignant. So far, the system has made an accurate diagnosis in 93 percent of breast tissue examined, and 85 percent of lymph nodes, the researchers said.

Doctors from Royal Liverpool University Hospital in Great Britain offered a new diagnostic test capable of predicting if a breast abnormality known as hyperplasia of unusual type (HUT) could be a red flag for breast cancer.

Although the condition itself is normally benign, women with HUT have up to twice the risk of developing breast cancer. Using the new system of tissue analysis, doctors can determine which women with HUT will go on to develop breast cancer.

Preliminary results of British studies of the breast cancer drug tamoxifen show it may help prevent breast cancer in women at high risk.

Speaking at the conference, researcher Jack Cuzick from Cancer Research UK said early results are promising, but doctors still don't know if the benefits outweigh the risks. Those include up to a threefold-increased chance of endometrial cancer, as well as blood clots. Cuzick said extensive follow-up is necessary to know who is most likely to be helped by tamoxifen.

From Norway came news that women who use HRT are more likely to discover they have breast cancer between mammography screenings than non-users.

Researchers said this may be because HRT causes an increase in breast tissue density, making it more difficult to image via mammography.

While links between HRT and breast density are not new, doctors said this study puts the number of women affected at a much higher rate than previously thought. That, in turn, points up the need for continued self-exams and professional manual exams between screenings for women who use HRT.

Three independent studies conducted in England, Spain and Italy offered evidence of the effectiveness of "interoperative radio therapy," a new way of administering radiation to breast cancer patients.

In the past, those patients required at least 25 treatments over a period of weeks or months. Doctors said delivering a single, concentrated beam of radiation directly into breast tissue at the time of the cancer surgery may do the job faster and easier. It could also reduce much of the cosmetic scarring that can occur with the extended treatments.

While results were promising, doctors warned the procedure is still experimental, with a possible increased risk of new cancer growth, scar tissue formation and tissue death.

American doctors made an important contribution with data that identified a group of genes that play a role in turning non-aggressive breast cancer into the much more deadly aggressive type.

Craig Allred, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, explained how a technique called "microarray" uses a sophisticated microchip to unravel which genes may cause ductal carcinoma in situ -- a less aggressive form of breast cancer -- to develop into the more deadly invasive breast cancer.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to develop drugs targeted to correct or prevent defects in the suspect genes which, in turn, may help prevent invasive breast cancer from occurring.

Elsewhere, doctors are working on "smart drugs" -- medications designed to interfere with the process that leads to malignancy.

Dr. Stephen Johnston, of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, announced the results of the world's first phase II trail of R115777 (Zarnestra), one "smart drug" showing great promise.

Smart drugs work, Johnston explained, by targeting essential enzymes involved in many stages of tumor growth. Although it may be a while before they are available, "smart drugs" are considered a major hope for breast cancer victims in the near future.

What To Do

To learn more about breast cancer, visit The National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations.

For the latest research on breast cancer, check out The National Library of Medicine .

SOURCES: March 18-23, 2002, third annual European Breast Cancer Conference, Barcelona, Spain
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