During a meeting at a restaurant inside a deconsecrated church hospital in Mainz, Germany, a small group of cancer researchers devised an audacious plan five years ago: they would test their novel Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine against one of the disease’s most virulent forms, a cancer known for relapsing even in patients whose tumours had been removed.
Some scientists hypothesised that the vaccine might not be able to prevent those relapses. Patients, however, were in a grave situation. The rapid recurrence of pancreatic cancer could also work in the researchers’ favour because they would rapidly learn if the vaccination was effective or not, for better or worse.
The scientists revealed findings on Wednesday that belied the high stakes. Half of the patients who received the vaccination experienced an immunological response, and during the duration of the research, none of these patients saw a return of their cancer, which was a result that outside specialists deemed to be very encouraging.
The discovery, which was published in Nature, was a turning point in the long-running effort to create cancer vaccinations that are specifically designed for each patient’s tumour.
Cancer Vaccinations In the Process
Dr. Vinod Balachandran’s team of researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York removed tumour samples from patients and sent them to Germany. There, researchers from BioNTech, the company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop a very effective COVID vaccine, examined the genetic makeup of certain proteins found on the surfaces of the cancer cells.
BioNTech researchers used the genetic information to create customised vaccines that instruct each patient’s immune system to go after tumours. The Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine utilised messenger RNA, just like BioNTech’s COVID injections. The vaccines in this instance told the patients’ cells to produce some of the same proteins that were on their removed tumours, potentially inducing an immune response that might be useful against genuine cancer cells.
“This is the first demonstrable success — and I will call it a success, despite the preliminary nature of the study — of an mRNA vaccine in pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Anirban Maitra, a specialist in the disease at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who was not involved in the study. “By that standard, it’s a milestone.”
Only 16 patients, all of whom were white, participated in the research. They received the vaccination as part of a treatment plan that also included chemotherapy and a medication designed to prevent tumours from evading the immune system. Additionally, the study was unable to completely exclude the possibility that variables other than the immunisation played a role in some patients’ improved results.
“It’s relatively early days,” said Dr. Patrick Ott of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Beyond that, Dr. Neeha Zaidi, a specialist in pancreatic cancer at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, stated that “cost is a major barrier for these types of vaccines to be more widely utilised.” It might lead to access inequities as a result.
Though patients started receiving the vaccines intravenously about nine weeks after having their tumours removed, the quickness with which scientists were able to develop, quality-check, and administer personalised Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine was a positive sign, according to specialists.
According to Dr. Ugur Sahin, a co-founder of the business who worked on the study, from the project’s start in December 2019, BioNTech has sped up the procedure to less than six weeks. The business hopes to eventually produce cancer vaccinations in four weeks.
And by automating some of the production processes, BioNTech has been able to reduce the price per dosage from approximately $350,000 to less than $100,000 since it started testing the vaccinations about ten years ago, according to Sahin.
Pancreatic cancer vaccine study yields hopeful results, reviewed by Hopkins Dr.
Results of the Experiment
The probability of relapse in patients who underwent surgery for the skin cancer melanoma was decreased by a personalised mRNA Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine created by Moderna and Merck, the firms reported last month. The most recent research raised the threshold, however, by focusing on pancreatic cancer, which is expected to have fewer genetic alterations that might make it amenable to vaccination therapy.
Patients who didn’t seem to benefit from the vaccine had a propensity for their cancer to come back approximately 13 months following surgery. The patients who did respond, however, exhibited no symptoms of relapse over the course of the roughly 18-month tracking period.
It’s interesting to note that after an unexpected growth appeared in the liver of one patient, there was indications of a vaccine-activated immune response there. Imaging scans afterwards revealed the tumour had vanished.
“It’s anecdotal, but it’s nice confirmatory data that the vaccine can get into these other tumor regions,” said Dr. Nina Bhardwaj, who studies Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Since they trained the immune system to recognise proteins on both tumours and healthy cells, scientists have struggled for years to develop a pancreatic Cancer Vaccine.
Ira Mellman, vice president of cancer immunology at Genentech, which developed the pancreatic cancer vaccine with BioNTech, said that tailoring vaccines to mutated proteins found only on cancer cells may help stimulate stronger immune responses and open new treatment options for any cancer patient.
“Just establishing the proof of concept that vaccines in cancer can actually do something after, I don’t know, 30 years of failure is probably not a bad thing,” Mellman said. “We’ll start with that.”
Also Read: 10 Holistic Approaches to Cancer Care