A team of researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University on Mainz, Germany have created a “universal” cancer vaccine that has shown promise in mice and in limited human trials.
The new, customized vaccine utilizes immunotherapy, using the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Because cancer cells act and react like normal cells, the immune system doesn’t attack them naturally. By using a cancer-specific antigen, though, the vaccine fools the immune system into attacking all cells that suppress it, seeking out tumors throughout the body. This vaccine is aimed for those already diagnosed with cancer.
The scientists first experimented on laboratory mice that had been riddled with engineered lung cancer. Scientists placed sections of the tumor’s genetic RNA code inside nanoparticles of a fatty acid membrane (that has a negative charge). They injected it into the mice where it could travel anywhere in the body – spleen, lymph nodes, bone marrow – where the vaccine would meet dendritic immune cells. These cells were stimulated to release interferon-a, a chemical that activated white blood cells (T-cells) to attack and destroy all cancer tumor cells containing this particular genetic code.
Thus, the mice’s own immune system fought the cancer cells. Within 20 days of receiving the vaccine, the mice were cancer-free.
The team wrote,
(Such) vaccines are fast and inexpensive to produce, and virtually any tumor antigen can be encoded by RNA. Thus, the nanoparticulate RNA immunotherapy approach introduced here may be regarded as a universally applicable novel vaccine class for cancer immunotherapy.
Researchers believe that because RNA samples are easy to obtain from every type of cancer, that the same techniques can be used to create vaccines for all types of cancer. It is a customized cure.
Dutch immunologists Jolanda de Vries and Figdor commented on the study in Nature,
Only relatively modest immune responses occur with vaccines containing antigens that are also expressed on healthy tissue. Strong immune responses can be expected only when cancer cells express antigens that are not usually expressed in normal adult cells.
After the successful mice trials, a limited human trial was conducted to test the safety of the vaccine. The results were also positive. Three melanoma patients received low doses of the customized vaccine. Though the doses were too low to have therapeutic benefit, the patient’s immune systems were stimulated, producing limited anti-cancer benefits.
One patient experienced a slight reduction in the size of their tumor. Another had their tumor removed and was still cancer-free seven months later. The third patient who had 8 tumors across their skin and lungs became “clinically stable.”
The scientific team has to wait 12 months to perform follow-up tests on the three test subjects before moving on to the next step, a broader study with full-strength vaccine. The results of a larger study will determine the vaccine’s success.