Back in the summer of 2007, prostate cancer patients were highly upset. A drug, named Provenge, which had shown tremendous potential at treating prostate cancer had been shot down by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The drug was denied based on the panel’s feelings that it did not sufficiently improve the quality of life of the patients, even though it increased lifespan by months, sometimes years. Luckily, however, after further proving its efficacy, Provenge was approved by the FDA on April 29, 2010.
Provenge is unlike any other cancer treatment available. It is referred to a vaccine, but it is not designed to prevent cancer. Instead, immune cells are pulled from the prostate cancer patient’s body, and genetically re-engineered to fight the cancer as if it were a virus. A normal vaccine is basically a dead, or nearly dead version of the virus that is to be protected against. The idea is that the body will see the virus, and beat up a weakened version of it, sort of as practice for the live version. The problem with cancer, though, is that cancerous cells are not foreign at all, but rather mutated versions of our own cells. This is also why the human body’s immune system does not inherently realize that cancer is dangerous; it’s simply too similar to what is supposed to be there.
Instead of providing a class on the subject like a normal vaccine, Provenge genetically alters the immune cells to recognize those cancer cells as the enemy. The implications are obvious and far reaching, well beyond the field of prostate cancer. The hope is that the next steps will include training other immune cells to fight other types of cancer. At this point, Provenge cannot prevent prostate cancer, nor can it eliminate the symptoms, but it can increase the lifespan of those using it dramatically, and until we can cure cancer, extending lifespans of those affected is the best thing going.