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Article: Report on vaccines to prevent hereditary cancer

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What the segment was about Clinical trials                       
More research is needed      Guidelines            
State of vaccine research Questions to ask your doctor   
Other research Resources

What the segment was about

Good Morning America aired a segment entitled “Can a vaccine help prevent breast cancer at its earliest stages?”  The segment featured women who underwent risk-reducing mastectomy and discussed early research on preventing cancer. They interviewed Douglas Hager, PhD, who described research on cancer prevention. The story goes on to discuss a preliminary plan to develop a vaccine that prevents breast cancer from occurring in people with mutations.  Hager and colleagues hope the vaccine will eliminate cells that are on the way to becoming cancer cells before cancer develops. While the potential vaccine was the focus of the story, Dr. Hager also mentions medications and other trials that could prevent cancer.  The reporter states that Hager and his colleagues identified a vaccine that has the “characteristics that will work best against BRCA-related cancers,” and noted that they may be able to begin clinical trials in 2 years. 

Preventing cancer is a passion for many in the community, so this story has led to many questions. It is impossible for a short Good Morning America piece to address all the questions people facing might have.  This XRAYS article addresses some of the questions and issues raised by members of our community about the state of this science.

More research is needed

While the story outlined some very exciting early research, it is important to remember that there are many steps from developing a potential vaccine in the laboratory to having one approved for use in healthy people. approval of a vaccine is the end result of years of discovery and development. This includes: early laboratory research to find vaccine “targets” within abnormal cells that won’t affect healthy cells; creating the vaccine that will bind with these targets; testing the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in animal models, and producing large quantities of the vaccine. Following laboratory research, the vaccine is then tested in humans in clinical trials. Clinical trials in humans are usually conducted in phases, which begin with testing safety and determining the dose that will maximize benefit while minimizing side effects. This phase is followed by larger trials which determine whether or not the vaccine is effective while further evaluating safety.

This process can take many years. One example of this process is the development of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines for prevention of cervical cancer. HPV types 16 and 18, the two types responsible for 70% of cervical cancers, were discovered in the early 1980’s.  During the 1990’s researchers definitively linked HPV infection to cervical cancer and identified unique HPV targets for HPV vaccines.  In 1999 the first HPV vaccine clinical trials began with the first report of efficacy (the vaccine was doing what it was supposed to do-prevent HPV infection) following in 2001.  The approved the first HPV vaccine for females in 2006 and for males in 2009—over 20 years after the first early research.

It is unclear from the Good Morning America story how far along this research is. The vaccine research cited in the story has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, making it difficult for outsiders to evaluate or comment on the status of the research. We will continue to follow this research.

Cancer prevention studies need many participants and many years to complete.  People making decisions about cancer risk management now should consult their health care providers about their options in order to decide what is right for them.  

State of cancer vaccine research

The idea of a vaccine to prevent cancer has been around for many years and the HPV vaccines are a real-world result.  Cancer vaccines can be divided into four broad categories:

  • vaccines to treat cancer (there is one vaccine approved to treat prostate cancer)
  • vaccines to prevent cancer that has been treated from coming back
  • vaccines to prevent cancer-causing viral infections such as the vaccines to prevent cervical cancer (human papilloma virus) and liver cancer (hepatitis B virus).
  • vaccines to prevent cancer before it starts

The vaccine discussed in the Good Morning America story falls into the fourth category.  If it works, it would kill cells that are on the way to becoming cancer cells before cancer develops. The person who gets the vaccine would then be protected from developing cancer but they would still have the mutation and could still pass it onto their children. 

While there are currently no vaccines approved to prevent hereditary cancers before they start, recent research into how cancer develops has given researchers clues on how to develop one. One of the challenges in developing vaccines against is that the cancer develops from the person’s own cells, so the vaccine must be able to tell the difference between a healthy cell and one that is on the way to becoming a cancer cell. This is very different than the HPV vaccine describe above, which is more like a traditional vaccine which targets a virus.

Other vaccine research

The Good Morning America segment did not cover other groups trying to develop vaccines to prevent BRCA-related cancers. A research group at the Basser Center for at the University of Pennsylvania led by Robert Vonderheide, MD, PhD and David Weiner, PhD have been studying a new vaccine that could someday prevent BRCA-related cancer in healthy mutation carriers 2,3. They are vaccinating patients with early cancers that are at high risk for recurrence in order to understand the safety and immunogenicity (whether the vaccine is reacting to the target molecules) of the vaccine in these patients. While not all patients in this clinical trial are mutation carriers some are. Once this early study is completed, the goal of the next study would be to vaccinate unaffected mutation carriers to look at safety and immunogenicity in this population. If that looks good the final step would be a large study to look at the risk of developing cancer following vaccination. 

FORCE will keep the community updated on results of vaccine trials and other prevention studies for people with mutations and other genes that increase risk for cancer.

affects men too  

The Good Morning America story featured two sisters affected by mutations talking about their choices for managing cancer risk and their hopes for their young daughters. The story did not mention that men also carry mutations and can pass the mutation on to their sons or daughters. Men with mutations in have an increased risk of male breast cancer, cancer (which usually occurs at younger ages than the general population and can be more aggressive), and pancreatic cancer. Men with family members who have mutations in or who have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer should consult with a genetics expert to discuss genetic testing. Current strategies to manage cancer risk can be found here.

Research on prevention depends on clinical trials

People facing often want better options for themselves and their families.  New forms of screening and prevention require rigorous clinical trials. These trials cannot be completed without mutation carriers who are willing to participate.  If you are interested in participating in ongoing trials for cancer screening or prevention, please see our Research section for studies near you. 

Posted 8/01/17

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Good Morning America. Can a vaccine help prevent breast cancer at its earliest stages?


FORCE receives funding from industry sponsors, including companies that manufacture cancer drugs, tests and devices. All XRAYS articles are written independently of any sponsor and are reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board prior to publication to assure scientific integrity.

This article is relevant for:

High risk women who have not had breast cancer

This article is also relevant for:

people with a genetic mutation linked to cancer risk


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Expert Guidelines
Expert Guidelines

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) provides breast cancer risk-management guidelines for people with and mutations. We recommend that you speak with a genetics expert who can review your personal and family history of cancer and help you to determine the best risk management plan. Note that our use of "men" and "women" refers to the sex you were assigned at birth.

Screening for women:

  • Beginning at age 18, be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel. Tell your doctor about any breast changes.
  • Beginning at age 25, have a doctor examine your breasts every 6-12 months.
  • Beginning at age 25, have an annual breast  with contrast (or  if  is unavailable).
  • Beginning at age 30 and continuing until age 75, have an annual and an annual breast with contrast.
  • After age 75, speak with your doctor about the benefits and risks of screening.

Risk reduction for women:

  • Speak with your doctor about of the advantages and disadvantages of risk-reducing mastectomy.
    • Research has shown that risk-reducing mastectomy can lower the chance of developing breast cancer in high-risk women by about 90%. Mastectomy has not been shown to help high-risk women live longer.
    • Because some breast tissue remains after mastectomy, some breast cancer risk also remains. 
  • Speak with your doctor about the benefits and risks of tamoxifen or other estrogen-blocking drugs to reduce your breast cancer risk. The benefits and risks may be different for women with or  mutations. Research on the benefit of these drugs to reduce breast cancer risk in women with  mutations has been mixed.

Risk management for men:

  • Beginning at age 35, learn how to do breast self-exams to check for breast changes.
  • Beginning at age 35, have a doctor examine your breasts every 12 months.
  • Beginning at age 50, consider an annual  (especially for men with mutations). 

Updated: 07/28/2023

Expert Guidelines
Expert Guidelines

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) provides guidelines for management of breast cancer risk in people with inherited mutations linked to breast cancer. We recommend that you speak with a genetics expert who can look at your personal and family history of cancer and help you determine the best risk management plan. 


  • Beginning at age 40 (or earlier based on your family history of breast cancer)
    • recommend yearly
  • Beginning at age 30-35
    • consider yearly with and without contrast

, or  

  • Beginning at age 40 (or earlier based on family history):
    • recommend yearly 
    • consider yearly breast  with and without contrast

  • No specific breast cancer screening guidelines. Risk management should be based on your family history of cancer.


  • Beginning at age 30 (or earlier based on family history):
    • recommend yearly 
    • consider yearly breast  with contrast
    • discuss risk-reducing mastectomy

  • Beginning at age 30 (or earlier based on family history):
    • recommend yearly 
    • recommend yearly breast  with and without contrast
    • discuss risk-reducing mastectomy with your doctor

  • Beginning at age 18, learn to be aware of changes in breasts.
  • Beginning at age 25:
    • clinical breast exam every 6-12 months beginning at age 25 or 10 years earlier than the youngest age of onset in the family
  • Beginning at age 30:
    • yearly and breast with contrast beginning at age 30 or earlier based on the youngest breast cancer in the family
    • discuss risk-reducing mastectomy with your doctor
  • After age 75
    • discuss benefits and limitations of continued screening with your doctor

  • Beginning at age 30:
    • clinical breast examination by a health care provider every 6 months starting at age 30
    • recommend yearly 
    • recommend yearly  with and without contrast
    • discuss risk-reducing mastectomy with your doctor

  • Beginning at age 18, learn to be aware of changes in your breasts.
  • Beginning at age 20:
    • clinical breast examination by a healthcare provider every 6 months
    • recommend yearly breast  with and without contrast beginning at age 20 or at the age of earliest breast cancer diagnosis if there is a history of breast cancer before age 20 in family
  • Beginning at age 30
    • recommend yearly
  • Consider risk reducing mastectomy.
  • After age 75
    • discuss benefits and limitations of continued screening with your doctor

Updated: 12/17/2023

Questions To Ask Your Doctor
Questions To Ask Your Doctor

  • Which cancers am I at elevated risk for?
  • What are my options for managing my cancer risk?
  • I had breast cancer before age 45, should I consider genetic testing?
  • How can I find a cancer prevention clinical trial?

Open Clinical Trials
Open Clinical Trials

The following are breast cancer screening or prevention studies enrolling people at high risk for breast cancer.   

Additional risk-management clinical trials for people at high risk for breast cancer may be found here.

Updated: 01/24/2024

Peer Support
Peer Support

FORCE offers many peer support programs for people with inherited mutations. 

Updated: 08/06/2022

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