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Could this revolutionary coup help destroy the cancer that killed Patrick Swayze?

Could this revolutionary coup help destroy the cancer that killed Patrick Swayze? Scientists test a ‘groundbreaking’ vaccine they hope will protect people from the deadly disease

Scientists are testing a potentially groundbreaking vaccine that they hope will protect people from developing pancreatic cancer.

A team from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in the US has just given the preventive injection to its first volunteer, a woman with a family history of the disease.

They want to equip your body with the tools to identify rogue cells that could become cancerous, allowing your immune system to launch preemptive “search and destroy” missions that will continually nip the problem in the bud.

A novel approach to the disease, which now claims nearly 10,000 lives a year in the UK alone, is desperately needed.

While survival rates for other major cancers have risen steadily in recent years, they remain stubbornly low for pancreatic cancer, with three-quarters dying within a year of diagnosis. Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze died at the age of 57 in 2009, 18 months after being diagnosed.

Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze (pictured) died of pancreatic cancer, aged 57, in 2009, 18 months after being diagnosed.

Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze (pictured) died of pancreatic cancer, aged 57, in 2009, 18 months after being diagnosed.

Oncologist Dr. Neeha Zaidi, who is leading the trial, said: “The best way to treat this disease is to catch it early because it is so challenging.” As the cancer develops, it becomes more difficult to treat. And it is very good at hiding from our immune system.

Experts have found that more than 90 percent of pancreatic cancer cases occur after cells in the organ develop a mutation in a particular gene called KRAS. The mutation causes cells to divide uncontrollably, eventually spelling cancer.

But some people are more likely to develop the KRAS flaw than others, and scientists believe that if cells containing the errant gene can be eliminated, it may be possible to prevent pancreatic cancer.

“People are not born with this mutation, the alteration occurs later in life,” added Dr. Zaidi. “But we do know that there is a large window of opportunity, as it takes at least a decade from the first KRAS mutation to the development of pancreatic cancer.”

The vaccine causes the immune system to recognize cells that contain the mutated KRAS gene through tiny protein “flags” on the surface.

The JHU trial will initially involve 25 healthy volunteers at high risk of pancreatic cancer due to family history. The team wants to verify that the jab is safe and assess the “immune response” it elicits. In particular, they will look for ‘T cells’ specifically capable of recognizing KRAS-infected cells.

A team from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in the US has just given the preventive injection to its first volunteer, a woman with a family history of the disease.  A stock photo is used above

A team from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in the US has just given the preventive injection to its first volunteer, a woman with a family history of the disease. A stock photo is used above

There have been great advances in the science of cancer immunology, including the vaccination of 12-year-olds against the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer.

But Dr Zaidi cautioned that it could take a decade to get solid evidence that the vaccine, or a ‘modified’ mRNA-based successor, prevents pancreatic cancer. ‘This is the first step towards a very big goal,’ he stressed.

KRAS expert Professor Julian Downward, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, added: “There’s a 30-year history of people trying to do this.” But if you could get a vaccine that was really effective and could be implemented in a population-wide vaccination strategy, that would make a big difference.”

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