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Game Changers: Dr. Vincent Tuohy leads team working on possible breast cancer vaccine

"What we are proposing here in my program at the Cleveland Clinic is that we develop a 21st century vaccine program that prevents diseases."

Dr. Vincent Tuohy is a man with an incredible mind, and a curious personality. 

"I'm a discovery guy, I'm a lab rat," Tuohy told 3News anchor Dave Chudowsky in a recent interview.  "I walk, it's like walking along the beach and you turn the rock over and go, oh, what's that?"

He also has a drive to make a difference when it comes to preventing breast cancer. The work being done here at his Cleveland Clinic Research lab is 20 years in the making. Tuohy says, it's all about changing our mindset when it comes to cancer.

"The way we control cancer is we beat the daylights out of it, you know, with the radiation and surgery and chemotherapy and immunotherapy...the cure really is to prevent it to begin with, the way we prevent polio and measles and mumps, he said. "What we are proposing here in my program at the Cleveland Clinic is that we develop a 21st century vaccine program that prevents diseases that we confront with age, that we have no defense against."

Credit: Cleveland Clinic

Since 2002, Tuohy and his team have been hard at work on the project, making headlines last year for their latest development.

"Things are working. We got it working in animals. And in October, we started the clinical trial to prevent breast cancer in humans, actually to prevent the most lethal form of breast cancer, which is triple negative breast cancer."

This phase one trial - expected to be completed in four months - is designed to determine dosage in patients with early-stage triple-negative breast cancer and to characterize and optimize the body’s immune response. Tuohy says, he's encouraged by the early results. 

"All I can say is that it's moving along nicely, the way we expected it.
And that's, we're going to [determine] the dose and we're going to establish a safety profile that we think we hope will be acceptable to the FDA. And then we can move on to a phase two study."

While his team is currently studying effects in patients who have already been diagnosed, Tuohy's long term goal is a true preventive vaccine that would be administered to healthy women to prevent them from ever developing triple-negative breast cancer.

The process has been lengthy, and there's still a long road ahead - a final vaccine could still be ten more years in the making. The process also requires an abundance of money.

In fact, Tuohy tells 3News he was almost out of funds back in 2016, facing retirement with the project likely ending. But support from several women’s groups and a grant for 6.2 million dollars for clinical trials meant he was back in business.

"I feel great. I mean, everything I've been dreaming of is coming to fruition," Tuohy said. "It was a struggle. It was hard. It wasn't easy, but this is my life's work."

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Tuohy came to Cleveland in 1989 and met his wife Marion on his first day of work. They’ve lived here ever since, with Tuohy dedicating his career to this groundbreaking research.

Credit: Dr. Vincent Tuohy

But Tuohy's three children and five grandchildren will tell you, that outside the lab, he has his passions.

"My biggest distraction is, I'm a sports nut. I watch my baseball games and my basketball games. I'm a sports junkie," Tuohy admits.

His other lifelong passion? Music.

"If I had a choice of a ticket... the last concert I went to was AC/DC," he said. "Yeah,  I'm an old rocker....I'm still stuck in the seventies."

But his mind is always on what’s next. Tuohy's vaccine strategy has the potential to be applied to other tumor types and his team is now currently developing three technologies including treatment for ovarian cancer.

New discoveries that could truly change the game for those affected by cancer not only here in Northeast Ohio - but all over the world.

"People thought I was a little wacky, you know?" Tuohy said. "But slowly, methodically, I think people are coming around to seeing that this can be done. It's quite possible."

Credit: Cleveland Clinic
G. Thomas Budd, MD and Vincent Tuohy, PhD, Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Lab

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