A team from Tel Aviv University and drug company Vaxil Biotheraputics laim to have developed a ‘universal’ cancer vaccine that can train patients’ own bodies to seek out and destroy tumour cells, The Telegraph (UK) reported.
Scientists say the therapy targets a molecule found in 90 percent of all cancers, and could soon pave the way for a universal injection that allows patients’ immune systems to fight off common cancers including breast, prostate, pancreatic, bowel and ovarian cancers.
The first results of trials in people, at the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, suggest the vaccine can reduce levels of disease. The human work is so preliminary it has yet to be published in a scientific journal.
The scientists behind the vaccine hope to conduct more extensive trials to prove it can be effective against a range of different cancers. They believe it could be used to fight small tumours if they are detected early or to help prevent the return and spread of disease in patients who have undergone conventional treatment.
In the safety trial at Hadassah, 10 patients with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, received the vaccine. Seven have finished the treatment and drug company Vaxil Biotherapeutics reported all had greater immunity against cancer cells compared with before they were given the vaccine. The company also added that three patients were free of detectable cancer following the treatment.
Cancer cells usually evade a patient’s immune system because they are not recognized as a threat. While the immune system usually attacks foreign cells such as bacteria, tumours are formed of the patient’s own cells that have malfunctioned.
Scientists have discovered that a molecule called MUC1, which is found on the surface of cancer cells, can be used to help the immune system detect tumours. The new vaccine, ImMucin, developed by Vaxil and researchers at Tel Aviv University, uses a section of the molecule to prime the immune system so it can identify and thus destroy cancer cells.
“ImMucin generated a robust and specific immune response in all patients which was observed after only 2-4 doses of the vaccine out of a maximum of 12 doses,” a statement from Vaxil Biotheraputics said. “In some of the patients, preliminary signs of clinical efficacy were observed.”
As a therapeutic vaccine it is designed to be given to patients who are already suffering from cancer to help their bodies fight off the disease rather than to prevent disease in the first place. Cancer cells contain high levels of MUC1 as it is thought to be involved helping tumours grow.
Healthy human cells also contain MUC1, but have levels that are too low to trigger the immune system after vaccination. When a vaccinated patient’s immune system encounters cancer cells, however, the far larger concentration of MUC1 causes it to attack and kill the tumour.
Vaxil suggested that if large-scale trials prove as successful, the vaccine could be available within six years. Initial research on the vaccine, in mice, was published in the journal Vaccine, and suggested the treatment induced ‘potent’ immunity in mice and increased their survival from cancer.
Cancer charities have given the vaccine a cautious welcome, but warned further testing was needed before it could be approved for widespread use. There are currently a number of other therapeutic vaccines against cancer being tested, but they have met with limited success.
Dr Kat Arney, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “There are several groups around the world investigating treatments that target MUC1, as it’s a very interesting target involved in several types of cancer.”
“These are very early results that are yet to be fully published, so there’s a lot more work to be done to prove that this particular vaccine is safe and effective in cancer patients,” she added.
Dr Caitlin Palframan, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: ‘This exciting new approach could lead to treatments for breast cancer patients who have few options. It also opens up the possibility of vaccinating high-risk women against breast cancer in the future.”