The UK is set to launch cancer vaccine trials in the fall.  Here’s what you need to know: ScienceAlert

The UK is set to launch cancer vaccine trials in the fall. Here’s what you need to know: ScienceAlert

The UK is set to launch cancer vaccine trials in the fall.  Here’s what you need to know: ScienceAlert

The UK government recently announced that it is partnering with German company BioNTech to test vaccines for cancer and other diseases.

The project aims to build on the mRNA vaccine technology for which BioNTech has become famous and which has been so successful in preventing serious illnesses and deaths from COVID.

The aim of this new project is to provide 10,000 personalized therapies to UK patients by 2030. Trials could start as early as this autumn.

Until recently, cancer was treated with surgery (cutting out cancer cells), radiation therapy (similar to burning cancer cells), and chemotherapy (stopping cancer cells from dividing by killing them directly).

The latter is well known for its severe side effects. Over the past decade, however, we have seen the emergence of new treatments, such as immunotherapy. Immunotherapy usually works by blocking receptors (proteins with names like CTLA-4, PD1 or PDL1) on the surface of cancer cells.

Our immune system already knows how to fight cancer, but these proteins are used by cancer cells to turn off the immune system.

By blocking these receptors, the immune system can recognize cancer as an enemy and kill it – like removing the coat from an intruder.

Although these drugs have their own side effects, they are generally much less severe than chemotherapy. And when they work, they can be continued for several months or even years.

More than ten years ago, scientists noticed that they worked particularly well in melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer.

Since then we have seen that they also work in many different cancers, from lung cancer to bladder cancer, in cancers with lots of PDL1 on their surface, to those with lots of mutations in their DNA.

But they don’t work in all cancers and often don’t work at all. Like other cancer drugs, they can also work for a while and then stop working.

Recent success with mRNA cancer vaccine

In December 2022, pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Merck announced positive results with a personalized cancer vaccine. Patients in the current trial had stage 3 melanoma, which means the cancer had spread to lymph nodes near the cancer.

The normal course of action would be surgery to remove the tumor and surrounding lymph nodes, then give infusions of an anti-PD1 drug (usually Merck’s Keytruda).

In this new personalized vaccine approach, scientists took melanoma samples from patients and examined the letters of their DNA.

They took up to 34 of the most mutated parts of DNA, called neo-antigens, and put them into a strand of mRNA – which can be thought of as the software in cells between DNA (the disc hard) and protein (material).

This mRNA was then given to patients as a personalized vaccine. It’s personalized because everyone has different neo-antigens, so everyone in the study received slightly different vaccines with up to 34 different mutations encoded in a single mRNA strand.

Just like the COVID mRNA vaccines, this mRNA created a small part of the cancer inside the patients, and their immune system reacted against it to give them protection.

The results of this mid-term study showed that adding the personalized cancer vaccine reduced the risk of cancer recurrence (or death from cancer) by 44% compared to the standard approach (surgery followed by anti-PD1 immunotherapy).

And there were no additional side effects beyond those of the existing immunotherapy.

While these results are potentially game-changing, we need to see results in other cancers in larger trials as well.

It is incredibly exciting that one of the largest mRNA companies, BioNTech, is teaming up in the UK to develop a research center in Cambridge, testing these approaches and giving them to 10,000 NHS patients, either routine or in the context of trials.

Advances in medicine are usually made in small steps, but this cancer vaccine – a new form of personalized and targeted medicine – could represent a giant leap, just like anti-PD1 or anti-PDL1 immunotherapies.

It’s exciting that the UK is at the center of this journey to help turn cancer not just into a chronic disease we can live with, but one we can cure.The conversation

Justin Stebbing, Professor of Biomedical Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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