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A Groundbreaking Discovery

Dr. Catherine Wu is working on vaccines that could treat many forms of cancer.

Dr. Catherine Wu looks at the camera while sitting at a microscope.
Courtesy Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Dr. Catherine Wu has conducted groundbreaking cancer research.

An oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, may have found the key to developing vaccines that would treat many forms of cancer. Dr. Catherine Wu’s research focuses on getting the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.

When a cancerous tumor grows, its cells mutate, or change, over time. The body’s immune system—the network of cells and tissues that defend the body against infection—often doesn’t recognize the difference between tumor cells and healthy cells, so it doesn’t attack the tumor. Wu’s vaccines, which would treat existing cancer (not prevent cancer from developing), would help the immune system to do its job.

This is different from two common cancer treatments—chemotherapy and radiation. In those treatments, the body is exposed to chemicals or radiation. This is meant to destroy cancer cells, but it can also end up damaging healthy cells.

Wu believes it’s possible to develop vaccines for specific types of cancer so that the immune system can be directed to defend that part of the body. Although she doesn’t believe every form of cancer could be treated with a vaccine, many could, including some that are currently hard to treat, such as melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Wu conducted a study in which six melanoma patients were vaccinated. After three to four years, the patients’ cancer cells were under control.

So far, Wu and her team have conducted “small” studies, in which they tested the vaccine on only a handful of people. Many more studies are necessary before she and others know if these cancer vaccines will be safe and effective. But her research is very promising, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which in February 2024 awarded her its Sjöberg Prize for “decisive contributions” to cancer research.

Wu has dreamed of curing cancer since she was in second grade. She may be getting close.

Fun Fact

A man in ancient Egyptian clothing has a clay crocodile strapped to his head as three others hold flowers and get well cards.

© Pavel Kudriavtsev, Siarhei Kavalenka/Dreamstime.com, © Kokhanchikov/stock.adobe.com; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In ancient Egypt, people treated headaches by putting herbs in the mouth of a clay crocodile and strapping the crocodile to their head.

Coming Soon?

A stratospheric hot air balloon is in space with Earth visible below.

© World View Enterprises

This computer image shows how a hot-air balloon might be able to take paying customers to space.

We may someday have cancer vaccines. Here are some other inventions already either in development or in use.

  1. Smartwatches for athletes that are powered by human sweat
  2. Building bricks for houses that can store energy like batteries
  3. Robot dogs to guide people with visual impairments
  4. Materials called aerogels that can’t conduct heat, making them ideal insulation for homes and other buildings
  5. Epidermal virtual reality that lets users touch virtual objects as well as see them
  6. Jet packs that can fly people at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour (180 kilometers per hour) at a maximum height of 18,000 feet (5,500 meters)
  7. Food labels that alert you when the food inside is about to go bad
  8. Machines that stop wildfires by shooting sound waves at them, creating a barrier between the flames and the oxygen in the air
  9. Hot-air balloons that take ordinary people into space
  10. Floating farms that grow vegetables on the sea and are powered by solar energy

Medical Milestones

A doctor examines four images from a brain scan.

© Andrew Brookes—Cultura/Getty Images

Did you know that humans began attempting to treat injuries and illnesses at least 12,000 years ago? Maybe you’re interested in a career in health care. You can learn just how far medicine has come, and where it’s going, at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

ingenuity

PART OF SPEECH:

noun

Definition:

: skill or cleverness that allows someone to solve problems, invent things, etc.

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