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Woman cancer-free in 7 months after receiving trial vaccine

A Florida woman is now cancer free and in recovery after receiving a trial vaccine at the Mayo Clinic earlier this year.

Lee Mercker was shocked when she was diagnosed with DCIS stage zero, a very early-stage form of breast cancer in March. "I was healthy,” she told Fox 35 Orlando. “That's why I was mad. I was stunned, and everyone around me was more mad and more stunned."

She went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to start treatment, where her doctor asked if she'd be interested in trying a new, experimental vaccine that aims to target and kill early-stage breast cancer cells and prevent future cancer cells from developing. She would receive the vaccine shot several times over a 12-week period.

"I signed up in like 10 seconds," Mercker said, becoming the first test subject for the treatment.

After receiving the vaccine, her tumor shrunk, her immune system started killing off the cancer cells and she underwent a double mastectomy just to be sure, but it worked. Seven months after receiving the upsetting diagnosis, Mercker is healthy again. 

"I feel like I walked on the moon,” she said. "I worked in an industry with tons of women and I saw all kinds of stories, and it'd just be really nice to stamp this [breast cancer] out."

Dr. Keith Knutson, Mercker's doctor, said the vaccine still has a long way to go, but her results are encouraging. The team will be able to test Mercker's removed tissue and has since started trying the vaccine on two other patients while they look for more test subjects. 

In an interview with Forbes, he noted that the vaccine, as well as two other cancer vaccines researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville are working on, are in the very early stages of testing. However, a breast cancer vaccine that's widely available is not so far away.

 “It is reasonable to say that we could have a vaccine within eight years that may be available to patients through their pharmacy or their doctor,” Knutson said.

“We know that they’re safe. We know that they stimulate the immune system [to fight cancer],” he said. “We know that they have had a positive impact on ovarian and breast cancer. We haven’t seen any adverse events that are causing problems other than irritation in the area similar to a flu vaccination. Now we have to convince the FDA, through solid, rigorous clinical trials that we’re seeing what we’re seeing.”

Knutson said the team is also working on a vaccine to prevent cancer with the National Breast Cancer Coalition and expects to be in phase 1 clinical trials in 2020.

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