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If findings from researchers at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute continue to hold promise, women could one day get a routine immunization against breast cancer.

The reality of that happening is at least 10 years down the line. But the first steps toward that goal are encouraging.

Researchers led by Clinic immunologist Vincent Touhy have found that a single vaccination with a substance called alpha-lactalbumin prevents breast cancer tumors from forming in mice and halts the growth of existing cancer tumors.

On Sunday the research was published online and will appear in the June 10 issue of the scientific journal Nature Medicine.

Alpha-lactalbumin is found in the breast milk of healthy, lactating women. The only time the protein appears otherwise is in the majority of breast cancers. The vaccine would be designed to target the protein without damaging healthy breast tissue.

While a number of trials for therapeutic breast cancer vaccines are under way to treat women who have already been diagnosed with the disease, there are few studies designed to test preventive vaccines.

The numbers are so small, in fact, that a prominent British epidemiologist has repeatedly vocalized her displeasure with the lack of research.

“The one hormone that has to do with breast changes doesn’t appear until late pregnancy. It goes up exponentially. It produces the changes in the breast that make for lactation,” Valerie Beral was quoted as saying in an Oct. 6, 2008, article in The Guardian newspaper. “Why isn’t anyone looking at it?”

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