The Problem
While more people are outliving cancer (overall death rates have fallen 22 percent since 1991), ovarian cancer remains stubbornly hard to beat. More than 21,000 women will be diagnosed with it this year, and about 14,000 will die. Because there's no standard screening test and the symptoms—which include bloating and pelvic pain—are so vague, most women are in stage III or IV by the time they're diagnosed.

The Breakthrough
Until recently, doctors weren't routinely able to identify which genetic mutations in a person's cancer cells would elicit a response from the body's immune system. But new research in the Journal of Experimental Medicine reveals that scientists have developed a way to do just that, enabling them to create customized vaccines they hope the body will use to mount an attack. "It takes about two to four weeks to analyze a sample of a patient's cells and blood to know which mutations to go after," says study coauthor Pramod Srivastava, MD, PhD, director of the University of Connecticut's Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center, who leads the team launching the first human clinical trial for this type of vaccine for ovarian cancer patients.

The Payoff
It's certainly time-consuming to create drugs tailored to each woman's specific genetic makeup, but the vaccines may be the key to staving off lethal recurrences; ovarian cancer commonly resurfaces within three years of treatment. Now doctors see that period as a window of opportunity to boost a patient's immune response so she's better able to fight rogue cells that return. "If we can prolong life by a year or more, that's huge," says Srivastava. "This could reshape the way we fight many types of cancer."


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