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Margulies breast cancer vaccineAfter soothing his sore throat with the warm soup his mother brought him, Sam asked his mother, “Why didn’t grandma get a vaccine before she got her breast cancer?” A great question.

Cancers are human cells that go bad and as such, cancers tend to wear the uniform of our own bodies. Often these are, fortunately, broken uniforms. More often than not, our immune system, which is our internal army, recognizes these broken uniforms and kills the cancer before the cancer can cause trouble.

But sometimes the cancer is able to wear a uniform that is not very broken and looks enough like a normal uniform to trick our immune system army into accepting this uniform as normal and healthy. The army will not destroy these cancers and these cancers will evade our immune system and attack our own bodies.

One idea that our scientists are pursuing is to teach our immune systems to recognize these subtly broken uniforms of cancer cells as truly broken. The researchers are searching for the parts of the uniform that are not normal, which is very difficult. It’s as if an old Soviet spy put on an American Army uniform but left a Soviet Flag on the back side of his lapel. The Soviet spy looks like an American Army Officer because no one can see the Soviet Flag hiding under his lapel. The trick in breast cancer vaccination is to identify this Soviet Flag on the subtly broken uniform and then to teach our army, our immune system, to search for and identify the Soviet Flag, thus recognizing the cancer as an imposter and an enemy to be destroyed.

This is difficult. Imagine that if Rebecca were to show her son, Sam, a Soviet Flag. Sam would not recognize the flag as representing evil. Rebecca needs to teach Sam that the Soviet Flag is a symbol of evil. Scientists must teach our immune system that certain proteins on cancer cells, that is, that certain aspects of their uniform, identify the cancer cells as bad or “not American.”

Once we can teach our army to identify a bad uniform, then we have to teach our army to respond to open up the armory and defeat the cancer.

It is very hard, tedious work, but many scientists and physicians are finding some success. It seems simple but it’s like getting your kids to do the dishes. You have to teach them the difference between a clean dish and a dirty dish. Then you have to teach them how to clean the dish. And then you have to motivate them to clean the dish, quite often having to  drag them from their bedroom to the kitchen to clean the dirty dish. You can begin to understand how difficult a process this can be.

Sam felt better knowing that he had an army in himself that was fighting the invading Flu. He knew that if he just gave his army the supplies it needed, i.e. rest, nutrition and fluids, that his army would defeat the Flu. Rebecca felt better knowing that scientists and physicians are working to teach her immune system to identify and destroy cancer. Rebecca is happy and hopeful for the future, that one day, cancer will be conquered. Sam, however, is not hopeful. He knows he’ll have to go back to school when he gets better.