Encouraging Progress On A Universal Cancer Vaccine

Promising data has been published from early trials and animal research on a universal cancer vaccine

What is a universal cancer vaccine? 

Well, in this case it's slightly different to a conventional vaccine. This vaccine would be given to patients who've already developed cancer, and essentially involves extracting specific RNA from a patient's cancer cells, encapsulating it in a fatty membrane and injecting it back into the body. Each cancer is unique, and unique RNA encodes for cancer-specific antigens, which their immune system can identify and target accordingly. This is essentially a personalised cancer vaccine that activates and hones the patient's immune system.  

"Nanoparticulate RNA immunotherapy approach introduced here may be regarded as a universally applicable novel vaccine class for cancer immunotherapy"

This technique is part of a new and emerging ensemble of immunotherapy approaches, but this latest branch of research is much faster and less expensive in comparison to genetic engineering new immune cells for example. 

How does it work? 

Each RNA assortment is representative of a particular cancer population, and coating these particles with a simple fatty acid membrane gives them a slight negative charge. This charge means that once injected, the particles will be especially drawn to dendritic immune cells - which help activate and direct killer T-cells for example. These immune cells absorb the RNA and express it as new antigens that inform other immune cells what to attack. 

A dendritic cell 

Early results? 

We have encouraging data from mice so far, in which their immune system was successfully activated against their cancer. A very early days trial involving 3 melanoma patients indicates the vaccine approach is likely safe, and the side effects are relatively mild (especially in comparison to chemotherapy). We'll have to wait for future human trials to find out whether it's effective or not. 

"By combining laboratory-based studies with results from an early-phase clinical trial, this research shows that a new type of treatment vaccine could be used to treat patients with melanoma by boosting the effects of their immune systems. Because the vaccine was only tested in three patients, larger clinical trials are needed to confirm it works and is safe, while more research will determine if it could be used to treat other types of cancer" 

As an end point, the name 'vaccine' is slightly misleading in a way, because the approach is in no way a vaccine for all cancer. This would be virtually impossible, given the massive variation in each cancer. It does however offer hope that one day following a diagnosis, patients could be quickly screened and administered a personalised vaccine to activate their immune system; offering either a stand alone treatment or a new addition to a combination of therapies. 

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