He suggested that it could be a major improvement for diabetics, who are required to get their insulin artificially through injections or an insulin pump. “The inert stuff could be anyplace, even in a dental transplant — anywhere you can stimulate the flow of saliva. It could release chemicals to stop asthma, for example.”
Long-lasting effects, including side effects, still need to be studied, he said.
Dr. Polverini’s special interest has been oral cancer, which is usually in its later stages when diagnosed. By that time, surgical therapy that involves disfigurement is often necessary.
“The tissue engineering research is more than proof of principle,” he said. “They showed it can get to work and literally get a tumor to disappear.”
Dr. Bart Kamen, medical director for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, said that “mice don’t mean anything to me until we can do it in people.” But he agreed that the technique “sounds like a way of making vaccine work better.”
Dr. Kamen said recent medical conferences on cancer suggest that “vaccines are the current wave and the wave of future. Our goal is to make the body be able to react against the tumor better.”
Dr. John Marshall, a medical oncologist who is director of developmental therapeutics at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, was skeptical of the Harvard study’s long-term impact. He said the implant offers “a new method of delivery, but the concept is not that fresh.”
Dr. Marshall said the true barrier for a cancer vaccine is reprogramming the immune system to attack only cancerous cells, not how one delivers antigens.
“We have been curing mice with vaccines for a long time, so that is not, in my opinion, news. The vehicle may be better than what we have had before in this particular kind of cancer, but it depends on the kind they put into the mouse,” he said. “The trick is how you reprogram the immune system.”