Lung cancer continues to be a most deadly enemy for African Americans and other minorities. Despite recent improvements in diagnosis and treatment, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death among African Americans.
While for many patients the promise of a cure is still in the future, researchers are hopeful as they look to treating this difficult disease with a novel approach: an anti-cancer vaccine.
The National Cancer Institute, the nation's foremost authority in research and part of the National Institutes of Health, is currently in the middle stages of a clinical study for the effectiveness of a new vaccine, the HyperAcute Lung Cancer Vaccine (HAL).
The vaccine is being studied as a potential treatment for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer, a disease that affects over 173,000 people a year in the U.S. The vaccine is being studied in patients whose lung cancers have recurred, or are growing, despite conventional treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
The vaccine study is particularly important in that the survival of patients with advanced lung cancer has been considered poor, often from six months to a year. The news that the diagnosis is particularly tough for minorities is even more discouraging. According to a study published by the NCI's Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results, African Americans are more likely to develop and die from lung cancer than persons of other racial or ethnic groups.
The outcomes are only marginally better for Asian American, Native Americans and Hispanics. Many factors contribute to the disparities in cancer incidence and death among racial, ethnic, and other underserved groups.
Most obvious are a lack of health care insurance and low socioeconomic status, access to health care, education, employment in certain high-risk occupations, behavioral risks such as cigarette smoking, and living conditions — including conditions where there may be increased exposure to environmental carcinogens.
Yet, for all populations regardless of racial or ethnic background, the prognosis for lung cancer is often bleak, with more than 80 percent of patients succumbing to their disease. It's this group of patients to whom the study's HyperAcute Lung Cancer Vaccine is targeted.
Cancer vaccines are novel in that they use the body's own immune system to fight cancer. Traditionally, the body's immune system has not been able to recognize cancer cells because they differ only slightly from normal healthy cells; thus, the immune system ignores them.
The HyperAcute Lung Cancer Vaccine is intended to reset the immune system to help the body identify its own lung cancer cells and generate an immune response.
An earlier phase of the study, completed by Dr. John Morris, principal investigator in the Metabolism Branch at the National Cancer Institute, included 17 patients with advanced lung cancer. Dr. Morris said that after receiving the vaccine, the tumors in six of the patients did not grow in more than 16 weeks.
This represents a hopeful sign since, prior to the vaccine, the patients' cancers had continued to progress despite other treatments.
Although promising treatment studies are open to all eligible patients, many are unaware that clinical trials exist and miss the opportunity to participate.
African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans represent over one third of our population, yet in 1999 only 6 percent of African Americans, and 1 percent of Hispanics and Asian Americans participated in these trials. This situation is disturbing, because the information gained from clinical trials is of greater value when trial participants represent a broad cross-section of the population.
Importantly for patients, some studies have indicated that cancer patients who participate in clinical trials fare better than those who do not. With more education and communication, participation by minority populations in clinical cancer trials will hopefully improve.
The National Cancer Institute is the nation's lead federal agency for cancer research. For more information about cancer research and resources, visit www.cancer.gov or call toll-free 1-800-4CANCER.