Personalized Cancer Vaccine Clinical Trial Shows Early Promise

A small new clinical trial has investigated a personalized cancer vaccine for people with head and neck cancer. Lesterman/Shutterstock.com

Promising results have come out of a new clinical trial investigating a personalized cancer vaccine for people with head and neck cancer. The researchers note that it's a very small study and still preliminary work, but their early results are looking good.

In a phase 1 trial, scientists at the University of Arizona Health Sciences set out to study the safety and effectiveness of a personalized cancer vaccine, combined with the immunotherapy drug Pembrolizumab, for the treatment of 10 people with head and neck cancer. Their findings showed that half of the patients positively responded to the treatment, while two patients received a complete response after the treatment, meaning there was no detectable cancer present. 

“The data are preliminary and the sample size is small, but it is promising,” Dr Julie E Bauman, deputy director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center and a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, said in a statement.

“A phase I trial is about safety first and foremost, and we now know this treatment is safe and tolerable. But, we also have a strong signal to point us to further study this in head and neck cancer. That is why we are excited to expand this trial."

Personalized cancer vaccines are one of the extremely promising new ways researchers are looking to fight cancer. Although much more complex, it essentially works on the same principle as any vaccine: it provides the immune system with a sample of what it should fight. Most vaccines, such as for measles or polio, are preventive, but cancer vaccines do not prevent the disease. Instead, they are typically given to people already diagnosed with cancer as a treatment that aims to boost the body's natural defense.

Cancers vary wildly from person to person. Cancer cells are the product of genetic mutations and these mutations are different for each patient. To pinpoint patient-specific cancer, the mutated DNA of the patient's cancerous tumor is simultaneously sequenced alongside healthy DNA from their blood. This identifies the patient’s unique mutations, which are then coded into a single molecule of messenger RNA (mRNA) and made into a vaccine. Once the vaccine is administered, it helps the body’s immune cells to learn to identify and attack the mutated cancer cells.

Much of the research into this approach is still in its very early days and biomedicine progress can be notoriously long and arduous. Nevertheless, many are extremely excited about the potential held by personalized medicine and the prospect of personalized cancer vaccines. 

Off the back of this success, the team will now expand the trials to 40 more patients with head and neck cancer, a relatively uncommon type of cancer that generally refers to cancers in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands.

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