Is a ‘vaccine’ the answer to cancer?
New research shows promising results in the battle against cancer. While we know vaccines have been successful in preventing diseases such as the measles and polio, they aren’t typically thought of when it comes to cancer. Currently, the most well known preventative cancer vaccine is for HPV.
New studies show a vaccine-like injection may be able to prompt the immune system into attacking cancer cells in our bodies. Injections are made directly into tumors and this therapy treatment will make the tumor like a vaccine factory for cancer. The study is led by Dr. Joshua Brody of the Lymphoma Immunotherapy Program at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The study has been published in the Nature Medicine journal and although the research is still preliminary, it’s revealed some promising results.
Although the treatment isn’t technically a vaccine, it is injected in a similar fashion right into a cancer tumor. The immune cells then learn how to recognize cancer and can search it out in parts of the body where it is then destroyed. Studies are showing that when just one tumor is injected with the treatment, other tumors in the body dissipate. The vaccine has been tested on eleven patients to-date. These patients all have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is cancer that afflicts the immune system cells.
While not all patients tested saw results, many did enter remission for long periods of time. These results were so promising that patients with head, neck, and breast cancer are now being tested. The treatment also seems to boost the effectiveness of immunotherapy known as the checkpoint blockade. Immunotherapy refers to the use of the immune system to fight off cancer. The results of the testing are showing positive results from the combination of the two treatments in mice.
The immunotherapy given in this vaccine-like treatment consists of multiple injections which aim to stimulate the immune system. The three-step process first involves an injection to spark the immune cells into action within the injected tumor. This then tells the T cells to begin fighting. Radiotherapy is used next to kill more tumor cells. Killing a few of these tumors causes antigens to spill out. The immune system then learns to recognize these antigens like the brain learns a lesson in school. A second injection will activate dendritic cells who act as messengers, teaching the lesson and fighting cancer throughout the body.
Potential Synergistic Therapies
In the case of checkpoint blockade drugs that are given to mice, when combined with the vaccine, 75% of these mice had positive results and long-term remission. When patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma were given blockade treatment alone, no results were seen. These results are showing promise for cancer patients not seeing results from current immunotherapy. The vaccine’s ability to enhance blockade treatments alone is a huge step in the efforts to treat cancer.
Currently, the vaccine treatment is very involved. Although it’s still in the preliminary phases, some work will likely be done to reduce the number of vaccines needed. Patients are given nine daily injections on the first step of the treatment alone. This is then followed by the radiotherapy which is given in two doses. The second and final immune stimulant is administered in eight injections. The experiments that follow will likely focus on reducing the number of steps so that some of these injections may be able to be combined. This will then allow for some flexibility as to where the testing is done. Currently, testing is limited to just a few specialized centers. With some simplifications, there could be more testing done at other sites.
The History Of Cancer Immunotherapy
Dr. William Coley is considered to be the father of immunotherapy used to treat cancer. In the late 1890’s Dr. Coley was the first to notice that when cancer was regressing, there was sometimes signs of an infection present. Using a cocktail-like mix of bacteria, Coley aimed to create infections in his patients to trigger their immune system. The hope was that the immune system would attack the bacterial infections along with anything appearing foreign within the body like a cancerous tumor. Despite his findings, it took decades for the principal he was testing to be used as a treatment option. Dr. Coley’s daughter, Helen Coley Nauts later picked up where her father had left off. Coley Nauts founded the Cancer Research Institute in 1953 to bring the efforts made by her father back to the forefront of cancer research.
Since the Coley family, there has been a lot of trial and error in terms of cancer vaccines. One negative effect is of course when other parts of the body get attacked as foreign objects. This can cause serious damage or even death. In 2010, the FDA approved a vaccine treatment for prostate cancer. In 2015, scientists in the U.S. and Cuba came up with a lung cancer vaccine that in early trials showed patients younger than 60 living almost a year longer than patients who didn’t receive the vaccine. In 2016, research showed that using a patients’ own acute leukemia cells to create a personalized cancer vaccine, protected against relapse in some cases. In 2018, two additional studies were published by Stanford University which showed cancer vaccines eliminating lymphoma in mice. Human trials for people with low-grade lymphoma are set to begin soon based on the success had by mice.
Although not all cancer vaccines have been successful, there has been a lot of positive results in recent years, especially when used in combination with other treatments. It’s the hope that with more testing and research, these breakthroughs can continue and even more strides can be made to fight cancer through immunotherapy.