In a week of plenty of bad news, it was heartening to find out that the FDA approved the first-ever vaccine to treat cancer. The treatment is called Provenge, and was developed by a small company named Dendrion for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer.
How it works: by growing the ‘harmless’ part of a tumour cell extracted from an affected person and mixing it with a special cell called a ‘dendritic cell’ in the lab, several antigens are produced which is then injected back into the affected person. This then alerts the person’s immune system to the presence of these foreign antigens, causing it to attack just the cancer cells, leaving alone the normal cells.
Why did I say there’s a lot of hype? Well, most news reports called it an anti-cancer vaccine, giving many the impression that it was a cure or that it could prevent cancer. Nothing can be further than the truth. Firstly, its meant only for prostate cancer (read,men only) and even then its for advanced prostate cancer (read, terminal). All it does is it gives an additional survival time of 4 months.(1)
And the cost? Dendrion announced that it will charge US$93,000 per patient, because, get this, it assumed that people will pay US$23,000 for every extra month of life based on current costs of other cancer drugs. Read more here. At this price, it would be out of reach to many, taking into consideration that insurance companies have not yet confirmed that they would underwrite the costs.
By the way, if we’re talking about anti-cancer vaccines, there are several already on the market – a typical example is Gardasil, used to prevent cancer of the cervix. Provenge is the first therapeutic vaccine – the first vaccine used for treatment, and not prevention.
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