Breast cancer patients live in the moment.
Decisions revolve around treatment and survival. It's about today, not tomorrow.
But looking ahead five, 10, even 20 years, is exactly what oncology researchers must do to keep making progress for the estimated 233,000 Americans diagnosed with breast cancer each year.
Hatem Soliman is focusing on the way breast cancer cells try to avert the human immune system. The Moffitt Cancer Center researcher's goal is to stimulate the immune system enough that it can hold reoccurring cancer at bay.
"Cancer cells have figured out how to get around the immune system," Soliman says. "How do we remove that invisibility cloak?"
Two of Soliman's three studies will see whether adding new drugs to breast cancer treatment can help shrink tumors and boost the power of existing chemotherapy. One of those studies involves a nontoxic treatment, meaning patients won't be experiencing additional side effects during an already painful and difficult process.
"They're already going through a lot with their treatments as it is," Soliman says
The third study wants to know whether a vaccine, called NeuVax, can prevent a repeat of breast cancer in survivors. It specifically targets the HER2 protein, which is found in excess in about 1 in 5 cases of breast cancer, Mayo Clinic research shows.
The odds of surviving breast cancer are good, particularly when cancer is treated early. National Institutes of Health statistics show that 90 percent of first-time breast cancer patients live at least five years after their diagnosis.
But this Moffitt vaccine study focuses on those facing the cancer again. Soliman says many of the estimated 40,000 who die from breast cancer each year fought the disease more than once.
Though the study involves a vaccine, Soliman says it's important people understand this isn't a way to prevent all breast cancers. The day when all women and men can get a cancer vaccine is far, far away.
Scientists at this point want to prevent a reoccurrence in those women and men most at risk of dying from the disease, he says.
The effectiveness of these studies really won't be understood for at least five years, the survival marker at which cancer patients and researchers consider a treatment a real success.
But asking these relatively small questions now may provide clues that lead to a cure in the future, Soliman says. This particular challenge shows that promise, he says.
"I'm particularly heartened."