Brain and Body

First Trials for a Universal Cancer Vaccine Show Promising Results

June 6, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Killer T cells surround a cancer cell
Photo credit: NIH Image Gallery/flickr (CC by SA 2.0). Killer T cells surround a cancer cell

The immune system would be geared to attack any tumor in the body.

Most vaccines we’re familiar with are given as preventive measures against diseases, but scientists are working on a universal cancer vaccine that would work a bit differently. Rather than vaccinating those at risk of getting cancer, it would be given to patients who already had the disease — and scientists say they just took a “very positive” step towards developing the cancer-fighting treatment.

How does it work? RNA (ribonucleic acid) coding for the protein markers or “antigens” that make each cancer unique would be extracted from the patient’s own cancer cells, and then nanoparticles of fat containing the RNA pieces would be injected into the patient’s bloodstream. In theory, this would mobilize the immune system against the cancer and urge the system to attack any tumors in the body.

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"[Such] vaccines are fast and inexpensive to produce, and virtually any tumour antigen can be encoded by RNA," the research team, from Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, reports in the journal Nature.

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

The German research team demonstrated the vaccine’s potential in mice. They write that the mouse immune systems were able to fight “aggressively growing” tumors once the rodents were injected with the vaccine.

However, just because a vaccine works in mice doesn’t mean the success will translate to humans, so we’ll have to wait for the results of future human trials.

The team is currently trialling a version of the vaccine in three patients with melanoma, but the point of the trial is simply to test whether the vaccine is safe for human use. If the 12-month follow-up results look promising, the researchers will put together a larger clinical trial to test whether the vaccine really works.

“We know the immune system has great potential to be manipulated and reactivated to fight cancer cells, that’s why we’ve been funding research into this for 15 years,” Dr. Helen Rippon, chief executive of Worldwide Cancer Research who was not involved in the research, told The Telegraph.

“These are exciting and novel results, showing the promise of an RNA nanoparticle vaccine to do just that.”

She says that more research with a larger number of people with different cancer types is needed before we can truly say we’ve found a “universal cancer vaccine,” but “this research is a very positive step forwards towards this global goal,” she concludes.

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