Move over chemotherapy? Personalized anti-cancer vaccines make strides

anti-cancer vaccines
Curing cancer could one day be as straightforward as getting an injection — if two new studies on anti-cancer vaccines are anything to go by.

Both studies were published in Nature this month and detail pioneering Phase I trials of possible personalized cancer vaccines that are designed to aid the body’s immune systems against skin cancer. Impressively, both found that the therapeutic vaccines — either on their own or in combination with other immunotherapies — were able to prevent the recurrence of melanomas.

One study was conducted by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, while the other was the work of investigators at BioNTech, a biotech company in Germany. As with any vaccine, the idea behind the “neoantigen” cancer vaccines isn question is to teach a patient’s body to battle against the developing pathology — in this case, tumor cells. Because each tumor is different, vaccines need to be personalized based on the neoantigens in each patient’s tumor.

“Our immune system is in principle able to fight cancer by recognizing mutations in tumor cells,” Dr. Ugur Sahin, who led the research in Germany, told Digital Trends. “Cancer mutations are ideal pieces of information to specifically instruct the immune system. Mutations are generated by random genetic alterations during the development of cancer, exquisitely restricted to the cancer cells, and are not found on normal tissues. As a vaccine, we use synthetic messenger RNA that carries the information about the set of individual mutations. We studied the approach in 13 patients with late-stage melanoma. Their cancer mutations were identified by comparing the genome sequence of the tumor with normal samples obtained from the same patient. We used computerized algorithms to deal with the huge amount of data, to extract useful information and to design a unique RNA vaccine for each patient.”

A similar approach was followed by the researchers in Boston — except that they incorporated the neoantigens into the vaccine themselves, rather than having the patient’s own cells generate it. Regardless of the approach, both studies were able to eliminate the cancer in almost all cases.

As Sahin notes of his own study: “Most of the patients remained melanoma relapse free in the subsequent observation period up to 27 months. This was impressive, as all these patients had a history of experiencing melanoma relapses multiple times.”

The solution isn’t as straightforward as a flu shot, however. For one thing, it requires that a patient has already had cancer, rather than being able to be used as a preventative measure. It also is less effective in early-stage cancer, and due to the personalized nature of the vaccines, takes a while to develop for each patient, which is not ideal when time may not be on a person’s side.

However, it’s definitely a significant advance — and very exciting for what neoantigen vaccines could mean for future research and drug development. Along with cancer-detecting algorithms, graphene, and artificial organs, it’s another reason we love cutting-edge tech!

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