Pitt and UPMC Researchers Test First Vaccine Targeting Pre-Invasive Breast Cancer

June 26, 2024

On Thursday morning, June 20, 2024, Maria Kitay, 67, received her final dose of a new vaccine targeting pre-invasive breast cancer. She was the first patient to get the vaccine, developed by Pitt and UPMC researchers, as part of a clinical trial led by Olivera Finn (above), Distinguished Professor of immunology and of surgery in the School of Medicine.

The researchers hope the vaccine will initiate an immune response for people with Stage-0 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), considered a precancer diagnosis. The vaccine relies on the MUC1 protein, which can trigger an immune response and could be useful in targeting certain cancers, Finn’s decades of research have found.

“Our approach with this vaccine is to teach the immune system to identify the precancer cells and attack them before they can turn into invasive cancer,” said Emilia Diego, associate professor of surgery, vice chair for diversity and inclusion, and section chief of breast surgery in the breast surgical oncology division, Department of Surgery. She is also codirector of the UPMC Hillman-UPMC Magee breast cancer program, division chief of the UPMC Breast Surgery and principal investigator for the clinical trial.

“This is a very innovative way to approach a breast cancer diagnosis, especially precancer diagnosis where we can prevent it with the vaccine eventually,” Finn said. “The long-term goal is to prevent cancer, and women who are participating in this trial are really going to help us do that once and for all.”

The vaccine trial was seeded by a $100,000 grant from the Pittsburgh-based A Glimmer of Hope Foundation—a gift the clinical team was able to leverage to secure a $2.1 million grant from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the largest funder of breast cancer research worldwide. This has enabled the team to open the trial to 50 patients for its first phase.  

Patients in the trial will receive three doses of the vaccine along with the standards of care for their breast cancer, so they will have the recommended surgery that any other patient would receive even after the vaccine is administered. Kitay received her vaccine doses 12, 10, and 2 weeks prior to surgery.

Patients with DCIS who are interested in participating in the clinical trial can contact UPMC Surgical Oncology at +1-412-641-3488.