The Malta Independent 25 September 2018, Tuesday

'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by scientists

Thursday, 2 June 2016, 11:06 Last update: about 3 years ago

Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said.

Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease.

The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer, The Independent (UK) reports.

The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany.

“[Such] vaccines are fast and inexpensive to produce, and virtually any tumour antigen [a protein attacked by the immune system] can be encoded by RNA," they wrote.

“Thus, the nanoparticulate RNA immunotherapy approach introduced here may be regarded as a universally applicable novel vaccine class for cancer immunotherapy.”

The paper said the three patients were given low doses of the vaccine and the aim of the trial was not to test how well the vaccine worked. While the patients' immune systems seemed to react, there was no evidence that their cancers went away as a result.

The third patient had eight tumours that had spread from the initial skin cancer into their lungs. These tumours remained “clinically stable” after they were given the vaccine, the paper said.

Cancer immunotherapy is currently causing significant excitement in the medical community.

It is already being used to treat some cancers with a number of patients still in remission more than 10 years after treatment.

While traditional cancer treatment for testicular and other forms of the disease can lead to a complete cure, lung cancer, melanoma, and some brain and neck cancers have proved difficult to treat.

Being able to inject an effective treatment into a patient’s bloodstream would be a significant step forward. The vaccine also produced limited flu-like side-effects in contrast to the extreme sickness caused by chemotherapy.

Professor Alan Melcher, of the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “Immunotherapy for cancer is a rapidly evolving and exciting field. This new study, in mice and a small number of patients, shows that an immune response against the antigens within a cancer can be triggered by a new type of cancer vaccine.

“Although the research is very interesting, it is still some way away from being of proven benefit to patients.  

“In particular, there is uncertainty around whether the therapeutic benefit seen in the mice by targeting a small number of antigens will also apply to humans, and the practical challenge of manufacturing nanoparticles for widespread clinical application.”

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