Cancerous tumors have proven to be one of the most difficult conditions to treat, given their biologically distinct nature. As each patient’s tumor possesses a unique, specific set of genetic mutations, a cancer treatment would need to be personally adjusted—“tailor-made”, essentially– for each patient in order to be truly effective. As of recently, this sort of “personalized” cancer treatment may be possible.
A new vaccine created to treat cancer has just finished undergoing clinical trials, successfully treating melanoma in two separate studies. Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Harvard Medical School have found that the vaccine stimulated a strong immune anti-tumor response in skin cancer patients, the results of both studies published in the scientific journal Nature.
Called NeoVax, the vaccine works by utilizing a patient’s own immune system and mutated cells to treat their cancerous growths. Researchers first found and collected faulty molecules from patients’ tumors, sequencing the DNA and RNA they had extracted. They then analyzed the mutations on each tumor and created a unique vaccine for each patient that contained parts of the previously collected cancerous molecules. By including these molecules in the vaccines, the researchers triggered the body’s immune system to recognize the tumor and attack it. Mobilizing the immune system to respond this way, the treatment serves as a testament to the power of personalized cancer therapies.
The customized vaccines are an emerging class of treatments known as neoantigen therapy. Antigens are molecules on the surface of cells that stimulate the immune system, and neoantigens are proteins on the cell’s surfaces, produced by DNA mutations present in cancer cells but not normal cells. According to researchers, this makes neoantigens the perfect targets for immunotherapy. Specifically targeting the DNA mutations that cause cancer also lowers the chance of the cancer relapsing, Harvard Medical School researchers have found.
Neoantigen therapies like these vaccines may also be a safer alternative to conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, which kills both cancerous and healthy cells, and often comes with a plethora of unpleasant side effects including hair loss, persistent nausea, constipation, and anemia. The vaccines, on the other hand, have proven to be both potent and safe in each clinical trial.
As far as other new treatments in the world of immunotherapy, there is currently a vaccine for lung, bladder, and skin cancer undergoing a Phase II efficacy trial. A vaccine for prostate cancer is also being developed to be used in conjunction with an antigen-stimulating drug.
Although more research and trials must be conducted, these cancer-killing vaccines show promising results thus far. As researchers continue to work on making personalized vaccines more effective as well as affordable to the public, the future of immunotherapy looks hopeful. By taking advantage of this medical innovation, we can revolutionize the way cancer is treated.