A person receiving an injection

Coverage of an anti-cancer "wonder jab" is over-hyped and misleading

Over the weekend you may have seen headlines announcing that a “‘Universal’ cancer vaccine” or “wonder jab” has been developed by Israeli researchers.

In fact, the story behind the headlines is about unpublished interim clinical trial results from just seven patients given ImMucin, a new vaccine targeting a protein called MUC1 which is found on the surface of many cancer cells.

We are concerned that some of the coverage of this story has been over-hyped and misleading – something that is particularly pertinent given the focus on responsible science and health reporting as part of the ongoing Leveson Inquiry (pdf).

The science behind the headlines

MUC1, or mucin 1, is a sticky, sugary protein found on the surface of healthy cells, including the lining of the gut, lungs and stomach. It helps to protect the body from infection in the same way that flypaper protects a kitchen, by forming a sticky surface that traps bacteria and prevents them from infecting cells.

As well as playing an important role in healthy tissue, high levels of MUC1 are found in many different types of cancer, including breast, pancreatic and lung cancer. It’s thought that it helps cancer cells to spread through the body, and resist the cell-killing effects of chemotherapy

Cancer researchers around the world have known about MUC1 for a long time. Indeed, some of our leading scientists, Professor Joyce Taylor-Papadimitriou and Dr Joy Burchell, pioneered research into MUC1 throughout the 1980s and 90s, revealing how it is involved in cancer and how it might be targeted by the immune system.

Because it’s found in so many different cancers, MUC1 is understandably a very attractive target for the development of cancer treatments. This includes ‘cancer vaccines’ like ImMucin, which train a patient’s immune system to recognise tumour cells carrying MUC1 and destroy them.

But ImMucin is certainly not the first MUC1 vaccine to be developed, and it’s a long way behind some of the leaders in the field. For example, Stimuvax – a MUC1 vaccine that we helped to develop – is currently in large scale clinical trials involving hundreds of patients with various types of cancer, and there are others in the pipeline too.

It’s important to be cautious about the results from the early-stage trial of ImMucin reported in the media, which are based on data from seven patients (out of ten treated so far) with multiple myeloma – a cancer affecting the immune system.

Furthermore, the team’s results are yet to be published in the scientific literature – the ‘gold standard’ for reliable research. Instead, the results have come directly from a press release from Vaxil Biotherapeutics Ltd, the company that makes the vaccine – something that wasn’t made clear in some of the media coverage of the story.

According to the company’s report, three patients out of seven have had a “complete response” – meaning that their cancer can no longer be detected, although this doesn’t necessarily mean a long-term cure. It’s also not clear how long this remission has lasted, or how any of these patients are doing now.

While MUC1 is certainly an important target in cancer and the results from the handful of myeloma patients in the ImMucin trial look promising, it’s a far cry from being a “wonder jab” that “kills 90% of all cancers”.

As we point out in our comment which we gave to the Daily Telegraph, “There are several groups around the world investigating treatments that target MUC1, as it’s a very interesting target involved in several types of cancer. These are very early results that are yet to be fully published, so there’s a lot more work to be done to prove that this particular vaccine is safe and effective in cancer patients.”

We’ve already been contacted by cancer patients wondering how to get access to this “wonder jab” as a result of the news coverage. As we’ve said before, over-hyped stories like this only serve to raise false hopes in people suffering from cancer and mislead the public.

Every day cancer researchers in labs and hospitals around the world are making huge strides against this terrible disease, and their progress and successes deserve to be reported to the public. But misrepresenting and over-selling their early baby-steps isn’t helpful to anyone, most of all cancer patients and their families.