For 15 years, Dr. Pinku Mukherjee has worked developing a vaccine for patients with breast cancer. The vaccine works by targeting specific proteins in the cancerous tumors associated with breast cancer. The ultimate goal is to boost the patient’s immune system to destroy breast cancer cells using the body’s own defenses.
“I don’t see there is any other way to completely fight [cancer] other than programming your own body to fight it,” said Mukherjee.
Mukherjee, Irwin Belk Distinguished Scholar of Cancer Research and professor of cancer biology at UNC Charlotte, thinks the future of cancer treatments can be found in using vaccines that boost the patient’s own immune system to fight cancerous tumors, just like vaccines are used to prevent viruses.
“The only thing that has really revolutionized our health care over the years is vaccine. We have been able to eradicate many diseases because of good vaccines. In my mind, [vaccines] will be one of the biggest ways that we can [fight] cancer,” she said.
A recent clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic tested the effectiveness of the vaccine. About 40 breast cancer patients were given doses of the vaccine over several years. Patients had already fought primary tumors and were in the remission phase. The vaccine is designed to help patients in this stage to fight the recurrence of tumors.
Mukherjee hopes for further development and testing of the vaccine and says many patients from the trial have seen positive results.
“There were some promising results and promising immune responses. More work needs to be done and more patients need to be enrolled [in further trials]. [The vaccine] is still very much in the research phase,” she said.
Even during childhood Mukherjee knew she wanted to use her interest in science to help fight cancer, especially breast cancer.
“My aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I saw how it affected my cousins who I went to school with. They completely blocked themselves off [from everyone] and would not play or laugh. It completely changed their lives. I wanted to do something about it if I ever got a chance,” she said.
Mukherjee found her opportunity at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she worked for 11 years with fellow researchers developing the vaccine for breast cancer.
Today she works on campus with her graduate and doctoral students improving the vaccine. Mukherjee anticipates further clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic and is using a similar approach to develop a vaccine for patients with pancreatic cancer.
After four years teaching and researching at UNC Charlotte, Mukherjee still hopes to sees a need for expanded cancer research at UNC Charlotte.
“I envision having a center for cancer research [with] faculty from various disciplines [including] environmental scientists, toxicologists, chemists, bioengineers and biologists. You need all these [disciplines] to come together to make something really big happen [in cancer research],” she said.