Vaccine For A Common Cancer?

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, left, tours a Mountain View neighborhood with U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, center, front, State Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, back center, and Carol Gore with Cook Inlet Housing Authority, right during Sec. Donovan's visit to Anchorage, Alaska Tuesday Aug. 11, 2009. Sec. Dovovan is in Alaska as part of President Obama's rural tour where cabinet secretaries and administration office tour the country discussing how communities, state, and the federal government can work together on low income housing issues. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
AP Photo/Al Grillo
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is the fifth most common cancer in the U.S. and there's currently no cure. But researchers may soon have a new weapon to fight one common form of the disease.

Dr. Mallika Marshall of CBS affiliate WBZ-TV in Boston reports that a new vaccine may be a step in the right direction.

The most common symptom of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a painless swelling of lymph nodes that occurs in the neck or under the arms. Some people may also experience swelling of lymph nodes in other parts of the body, including the groin, legs and ankles. Other patients complain of fever, unexplained weight loss, night sweating, chills and lack of energy.

Dr. Marshall says it's important to know that pain won't be felt in the early stages of the disease. The symptoms mimic those of other less serious illnesses. So if symptoms are persistent, you should contact your doctor.

Conventional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, often become less effective the longer they are used in patients with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. This is why scientists are so eager to develop viable alternatives.

Doctors hope the same cancer cells that infected his lymph node will now save Michael Peterson's life.

"We are at a point where the ones in my abdomen are getting big," says Peterson.

Six years after he was diagnosed with a slow-spreading form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Peterson's doctors are treating his disease more aggressively, beginning with the removal of the diseased lymph node on his neck.

The node is being used to create a personalized vaccine. Personalized vaccines are part of a growing trend in cancer research in which treatments are tailored to each patient's individual cancer.

"The idea of the vaccine is that the tumor cells have molecules on their surface that are present only on the tumor and not on any other cells," says Cornell Medical Center's Dr. John Leonard.

Scientists take the tissue sample, identify that molecule and replicate it.

The tissue is then injected back into patient. The hope is that it will teach the body to recognize the cancer molecules and fight them wherever they are present.

"The chemo did what it was supposed to do. Now we are hoping the vaccine will keep it in remission for a longer period of time," says non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patient Patricia Melchiorre.

This vaccine therapy is relatively free of toxicity and leaves healthy cells unharmed, so patients tend not to have serious side effects.

A longer remission would be considered an advance for a disease without a cure. The trial in which Melchiorre and Peterson are participating is blind, meaning neither of the two knows if he is getting their own vaccine or a dummy vaccine. Both patients have about a two-thirds chance of getting the actual vaccine.

Dr. Marshall says there are other medications on the horizon to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Last month, a panel of expert advisors to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended approval of the drug Bexxar. This development comes after the FDA rejected an application by Bexxar's manufacturer, saying there was not enough proof of safety and efficacy. The decision was appealed and new data was presented.

The FDA typically follows its committees' recommendations and has until May to decide whether the drug can be offered on the market.