ASU professor tests preventive cancer vaccine

May 3, 2016, 8:33 AM

For more than 10 years, professor Stephen Johnston and a team of researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute have been developing a cancer vaccine aimed at preventing all types of the disease.

Johnston said his vaccine has passed safety trials and is moving on to efficacy trials in dogs.

Johnston said one of the biggest challenges in developing a preventive cancer vaccine is finding common mutations in different tumors. For example, tumors presented in melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer, can have thousands of variations.

He said this has led many researchers in the medical community to view creating a universal vaccine as impossible.

Most of the research so far has focused on the DNA level, Johnston said. However, when he looked at the RNA level – another form of genetic information – he discovered common mutations across many tumors.

So is a vaccine possible?

“I do not know,” he said. “There is maybe a 50-50 chance it might work. If it works in dogs, I’m almost sure it would work in people.”

Johnston said other researchers have questioned the viability of his concept.

In an unpublished article, he pointed out that “the industry is responsible for over $200 billion directly spent on cancer in the U.S. each year.”

“Any time you have a group that’s making a lot of money and their living depends on it … that community is based on people getting cancer,” Johnston said. “Imagine what would happen if someone tomorrow announced that here is evidence that you can take this vaccine, and you won’t get cancer.”

There are some approved preventative cancer vaccines. However, they target specific types of cancer, such as cervical cancer.

There are also cancer treatment vaccines, but most are only available through clinical trials, according to

Arizona’s cancer rate is among the lowest in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It found that 373 out of every 100,000 Arizona men and women got cancer in 2012, the most recent data available. The national incidence rate was 440 cases per 100,000. The only other state with a lower rate was New Mexico.

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ASU professor tests preventive cancer vaccine