Scientists have developed a cancer “vaccine” that can help trigger your immune system to attack cancer cells in your body, according to the results of a small but promising new study.
The study, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine, investigated the results of the treatment in 11 patients with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes and lymphatic system. While not all of the patients responded to the treatment, some went into full remission for months or years after receiving the “vaccine.”
What is a cancer “vaccine,” exactly?
While this is being called a “vaccine,” it actually doesn’t prevent someone from developing cancer, says study coauthor Joshua Brody, MD, director of the Lymphoma Immunotherapy Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “This is a therapeutic vaccine, not a preventative vaccine, i.e. it is used to treat people that already have the disease,” he says.
While the “vaccine” was tested on lymphoma patients, Dr. Brody says his lab has already seen it work on other types of tumors.
How does the “vaccine” work?
The “vaccine” works by injecting two immune stimulants directly into a tumor. That ‘tricks’ the immune system into thinking that the tumor is like an infection,” Dr. Brody says. “Then, the activated immune cells travel throughout the body to kill tumors wherever they find them.”
Another way to describe it is that the vaccine follows three steps: First, the treatment is injected into the tumor. Then, the tumor is treated with a low dose of radiation. Finally, it’s injected with another stimulant that activates the immune cells (which then go through the body and kill other tumors).
It’s worth noting that this effect only put three of the 11 patients into remission, but researchers are hoping to increase its effectiveness in future trials.
The “vaccine” also seems to boost the effectiveness of a form of immunotherapy called a checkpoint blockade (which received the 2018 Nobel Prize). “Checkpoint blockade ‘releases the brakes’ from anti-cancer immune cells so they can kill more effectively, but it doesn’t generate or ‘prime’ anti-cancer immune cells,” Dr. Brody says. “Therefore a combination of the cancer ‘vaccine’ plus checkpoint blockade appears much more effective than either therapy alone.”
Where does the “vaccine” go from here?
Dr. Brody and his team are doing another clinical trial using the “vaccine” on additional patients with lymphoma, as well as patients with breast and head and neck cancers. They’re also testing the combination of the cancer “vaccine” with checkpoint blockades.
This won’t be widely available to cancer patients anytime soon (it will have to go through a rigorous FDA approval first), and more research is needed to try to make the “vaccine” effective for more people. Still, it’s promising.