(WHTM) — Doctors at UPMC are launching the first of what they hope are many important clinical trials, testing a vaccine that could prevent breast cancer.

“I was always very interested in the possibility that the immune system would actually protect us from cancer,” said UPMC cancer immunologist Dr. Olivera Finn.

For the last 40 years, Dr. Finn has been studying how to make the immune system better at fighting cancer. Vaccines are one of the ways to make an immune response stronger.

However, for many years, researchers worried cancer vaccines could make the immune system attack the rest of the body, not just the cancer.

“Even our best vaccines that in animals worked really well could only be tested in end-stage cancer patients, those who have failed all therapies, who would…agree to have the vaccine as sort of the last resort,” Dr. Finn said.

That has since changed, and now Dr. Finn is setting up a clinical trial for a breast cancer vaccine. It is for women with Ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, an early form of breast cancer that rarely becomes invasive. In women who have DCIS, the abnormal cells are limited to the duct.

The long-term goal is a vaccine that will get rid of those tumors.

“It should replace radiation, it should replace surgery,” Dr. Finn said.

Finn said it is also possible that the vaccine could prevent DCIS from becoming an invasive cancer, though that would take more research.

“It certainly wouldn’t let the lesion grow or spread,” she said.

PA Breast Cancer Coalition Pat Halpin-Murphy called the upcoming clinical trial “groundbreaking, earth-shattering, a huge step forward” for both treatment and prevention.

“Vaccines, as I understand that would not be as devastating with their side effects as…chemotherapy, immunotherapy, etc., and radiation,” she said.

Halpin-Murphy is encouraging women to participate.

“Our goal is to help find a cure for breast cancer now so that our daughters don’t have to,” she said. “Clinical trials are the key to improving treatment and ultimately finding a cure.”

Dr. Finn said, “The whole idea is to just develop something that would really make a big difference.

There is still a long road before this vaccine could become broadly available. First, more trials, then finding a pharmaceutical company willing to produce it. Still, Dr. Finn is very hopeful that this could prove to be a game-changer for many women.