Boost Your Immune System! It’s become the stock refrain from those selling supplements, remedies and assorted other concoctions. Most of the time this claim is pure marketing, all flash and no substance. The real immune boosters are far more effective and in many cases quietly do their job without the hype. We all are familiar with the practice of vaccination prior to contracting disease in order to prevent infections but can they be of use once a person is already sick? Turns out they can, these versions of our childhood and vacation friends are called Therapeutic Vaccines and they can be given to patients to combat illnesses that have already developed.

One of the more exciting uses these types of vaccine are being put to is to help our body deal with cancer. In particular difficult to treat breast cancers have been the focus of recent research by the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR). The main problem in fighting cancer is that the cause of the disease is not a foreign invader but your own cells so specificity is difficult to achieve. This difficulty gives rise to the familiar side effects of chemotherapy (hair loss, nausea etc), so methods to target only cancer cells is the primary goal in most cancer research. In this case it is the products of a class of genes called CT-X genes, which stands for Cancer/Testis on chromosome X, that are being targeted by therapeutic vaccines. It turns out that this class of gene is not only expressed in male sex organs but also in many cancers, apparently almost exclusively in cancers.

These proteins are also expressed on the surface of the cancer cells which makes them a perfect target for vaccines. Preliminary research on cancer vaccines are already in the phase III stage, which means the large randomised trials that give the best evidence of efficacy and safety that come before a therapy is put to use in the wider community. It could be that vaccines will become an ever more important tool in our belt in the fight against a wide variety of illness. And it has the advantage of really stimulating your body to heal itself, an idea that is also widely used in alternative medicine circles. Double win!