Tuberculosis Vaccine May Reduce Lung Cancer Risk


Results of multi-generational study indicates risk reduction potential.


A vaccine approved for preventing tuberculosis (TB) could also reduce the risk of developing lung cancer later in life if the vaccine is administered during childhood, according to a study conducted by four generations of researchers in one family. 

The study, published in JAMA Network open, found that the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine-which isn’t often given in the United States due to the low risk of TB-reduced the rate of lung cancer by 2.5 times compared to those who hadn’t received the vaccine during childhood. 

“The most significant findings were that those subjects who received BCG vaccine at about age 8 were observed to have much lower rates of lung cancer over a 60-year follow up period,” the study’s senior author, Naomi Aronson, PhD, director of infectious diseases at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, MD tells Drug Topics.

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Although the vaccine appeared to lower the risk of lung cancer, it did not have any impact on other types of cancer including lymphoma and leukemia, she said.

Aronson believes the study’s findings also demonstrate the value of maintaining clinical trial records for multiple generations- the study relied on data first captured by her grandparents in the 1930s.

The initial clinical trial ran from 1935 to 1938 and was conducted by her grandparents Joseph and Charlotte Aronson with 3,000 Native American and Alaskan Native children. Patients in the study were either given the vaccine or a placebo. During the first 11 years of the study, Aronson tells Drug Topics her grandparents made annual visits to evaluate the subjects using chest x-rays and repeated TB skin testing.

That data was later bequeathed to Dr. George Comstock, who used the data in the mid-1990s to conduct a long-term follow-up of the study population after concern about multi-drug-resistant TB began to grow in the United States. 

Aronson was fortunate to work alongside Comstock in the study, which found that those who had received the BCG vaccine had long-term duration of protection against TB. 

Aronson decided to look into the vaccine’s possible impact on cancer risk after earlier research had shown that the BCG vaccine may be linked to more non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an association that wasn’t observed in Aronson’s latest study. 

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Her nephew, Nick Usher, served as the first author in the study-making him the fourth generation to be connected to the data.

Aronson believes the group’s finding that the BCG vaccine reduces the risk of lung cancer adds to an emerging observation that the vaccine could be associated with nonspecific immune effects and said more research needs to be done to corroborate the findings.

Len Lichtenfeld, the interim chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, called the findings fascinating and commented on the long duration of follow-up in the study, though he says it is unlikely the vaccine can be used to prevent lung cancer. 

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