Vaccines have saved many lives, and will save many more. The benefits of preventing disease rather than treating it are immense and obvious. Medical scientists are working on increasing the scope of disease prevention, by working on new vaccines against many diseases.
Some of the most dangerous disorders are threats because they have evolved ways to elude the body’s notice. Vaccines, on the other hand, work by notifying the immune system of a potential invader, so that it can prepare a defense.
Therefore, if vaccines could be created that would alert the immune system to a developing cancer, the immune system could conceivably stop it while it was microscopic.
Cancer is not one disease, of course, but an assortment, so it is probable that a variety of vaccines will someday fight it. Some will prevent disease by preventing viral infections, as cervical cancer vaccines do now. Others will turn on the immune system, and probably still others will turn the cancer’s attack against itself, as it is now turned against its host.
One problem in developing such vaccines will be in identifying and replicating particular warning signals associated with certain cancers, without recreating the cancers themselves.
One of the most dangerous features associated with the HIV virus is its long incubation period. Many people spread HIV because they do not know they have it. Another danger, though, is that it attacks the immune system. The system that is meant to protect the body is destroyed - the very system that vaccines alert in order to be effective. Finding a vaccine that works against AIDS will be difficult indeed. When it comes, though, it will be a great step forward.
Alzheimer’s is a heart-breaking mystery. The amyloid-beta peptide, though, is strongly suspected as a primary causative agent. Vaccines that can lower brain levels of this molecule are believed to be a great hope for decreasing the incidence or at least slowing the progression of this horrifying disease. Promising vaccines are actually in testing, though one trial was halted when a particular vaccine caused meningoencephalitis.
What if addicts could choose to be immunized against their drug of choice? Already, various drugs, such as disulfiram and naltrexone, target the pleasure that drug-takers seek, but in impermanent and inefficient ways. Vaccines could do his job better. If the high is gone from taking heroin, surely the urge to take heroin will pass. Obviously ethical and social questions abound.
Vaccines that can fight cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, and even drug addiction, are already in development. Each faces particular barriers, but each has a corps of dedicated medical personnel bent on finding weapons to use against some of our most insidious enemies.