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Harnessing the immune system could offer an entirely new way to stop prostate cancer, and ‘research’ is creating the technology to do it.
Vaccines work by harnessing the power of your immune system to help you fight disease. Your immune system is your body’s personalised army. It protects you against harmful cells and it does this best when it has a chance to practice fighting them.
Vaccines provide this chance to practice by introducing weakened versions of harmful cells into your body so if you ever come across the full-strength version, it can be attacked and dealt with swiftly.
As your immune system is the part of your body doing all the hard work, this type of treatment is called immunotherapy. Developments in immunotherapy are crucial as they offer men the potential of another treatment for prostate cancer that could keep them with their families for longer.
Professor Helen McCarthy at Queen’s University Belfast – vaccines work by carefully packaging genetic material from prostate cancer cells, called mRNA , and delivering it directly to the immune system. The mRNA is part of the genetic information of the cancer cells and, although it isn’t dangerous, it’s enough to train the immune system to recognise and attack prostate cancer cells.
Professor McCarthy’s research aims to offer a treatment for men with advanced prostate cancer who currently have very few options available. At that stage, the cancer is often incurable and a prostate cancer vaccine could be the much-needed revolution in treatment to give these men more time with their loved ones.
Delivering the cancer vaccine Professor McCarthy and her team are not only developing the prostate cancer vaccine, they’re also exploring new techniques so that it gets to the right cells in the body. The mRNA breaks down easily, so they have created a protein parcel that carefully packages the mRNA and lets it reach the immune cells intact.
The team are also working on a new system for getting the vaccine into the body. Instead of using a traditional needle, which we’ve all seen a lot of recently, the team trialled a skin patch. The surface of the patch is covered in tiny microneedles which dissolve in the body. The patch can be applied painlessly, like a plaster, and allows the vaccine to quickly overcome the outer skin barrier and be delivered straight into the area with most immune cells.
It’s important to remember each case of prostate cancer is as unique as the man who has it. This can mean some treatments work better for some people and wouldn’t be suitable for others.
It’s the combination of an excellent vaccine and innovative delivery method that makes Professor McCarthy’s work so important. In her words, “You can make the best treatment in the world, but if it can’t get where it needs to go, it’s useless.”
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