Dr. Wu and her team want to create personalized vaccines to battle cancer (Credit: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Scientists have found cures for many types of diseases. However, a guaranteed way to fight cancer has proved elusive. That is because every person's cancer is based on their particular genes. Dr. Catherine Wu and her team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, aim to change that by developing custom vaccines to fight each person's unique cancer.

Dr. Wu's research focuses on harnessing the power of the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. She got the idea after watching how a bone marrow transplant helped leukemia patients reset their immune systems to fight the disease.

"There in front of my eyes were people who are being cured of their leukemia because of the mobilization of the immune response,” she said.

The custom vaccines boost the body's immune system to fight cancers (Credit: UCR.org/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The researcher wondered if vaccines created using an individual's cancer characteristics could stimulate their immune system to attack the diseased cells more effectively.

For their first study, Dr. Wu and her team chose six people suffering from advanced melanoma, a type of skin cancer. The scientists began by analyzing each individual's cancer characteristics. They then created personalized vaccines containing each patient's unique proteins. The vaccines were designed to train the patients' immune systems to recognize and kill cancer cells while sparing the healthy ones.

In 2015, all individuals were given a seven-shot course of their personalized vaccines. By 2017, four patients showed no signs of cancer recurrence. The tumors did return for the two patients with the most advanced cancer. But the growths disappeared after the patients received four more doses of the customized vaccines. By 2021, all six patients were declared cancer-free.

Dr. Wu's first study proved that target vaccines could battle cancer (Credit: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Though the sample size is small, Dr. Wu's research has proved that personalized vaccines can effectively battle cancer. Her pioneering work has earned her numerous awards. Most recently, in February 2024, she received the prestigious Sjöberg Prize. The honor carries a prize of $1 million — $100,000 as award money and $900,000 to fund future cancer research.

Resources: harvard.edu, CNN.com, danafarber.com