Surgery and chemotherapy have long been the primary treatment options for colorectal cancer. Even then, survival rates can be low, if the cancer is not detected early.
Now, researchers are fighting back with a simple vaccine meant to activate the body's immune cells and destroy cancer cells. There is hope it might also target other deadly cancers.
Judith May, 66, spent years saving others as an EMT, but hated to accept help herself after she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer.
"You do everything yourself and I had to depend on my husband, who was my wonderful nurse," May said.
But even as she fought her disease with traditional surgery and chemotherapy, she said she had the nagging feeling there had to be some other treatment.
"Anything that would help it, cure it, possibly," May said.
Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia are hoping for just that. They are in phase 2 clinical trials for a colorectal vaccine that seeks a specific molecule in cancer cells called GUCY2C.
"We can administer a vaccine in the arm, for example and those immune cells will spread out from there and seek out cancer cells in different places like the lung and the liver, where they may have spread to," said Adam Snook, PhD, Assistant Professor at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health and Jefferson University.
During phase 1 of the study, researchers found GUCY2C in three other cancers: pancreatic, esophageal and stomach, which could mean a later version of the vaccine would fight them, as well. The new study will include about 100 patients, followed over the course of two years. Meanwhile, May will try to stay positive.
"I play golf, we travel and just do whatever we can do. Each day that I wake up it’s a blessing to me," May said.
This pivotal phase 2 study hones in on targeting specific cancer molecules and destroying them. Researchers know that cancer cells are so similar to normal cells in makeup that it is often difficult to create cancer specific therapies, but they believe it is possible to safely leverage a patient's own immune system to kill cancer cells.
Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Donna Parker, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer and Editor.