Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine Yields Results

Macro of a hypodermic syringe or needle being filled with an mRNA vaccine from a bottle against a blue background. | Image by diy13/Shutterstock

A small-scale trial of a new personalized vaccine for pancreatic cancer showed early signs of success — a ray of hope for patients facing dismal survival rates.

Dr. Vinod Balachandran of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) published the results of a phase I trial using personalized mRNA vaccines as a cancer treatment in the peer-reviewed journal Nature on May 10.

The rising number of deaths caused by pancreatic cancer has made developing better treatment options for those diagnosed with the disease all the more urgent. With a mortality rate of 88%, pancreatic cancer is projected to overtake colorectal cancer in terms of deaths before 2030 to become the second most deadly form of cancer behind pulmonary cancer.

A huge driver of pancreatic cancer is obesity, the rates of which continue to rise worldwide. One study showed a 50 to 60% increased risk of pancreatic cancer among obese individuals.

A leading factor in deaths caused by pancreatic cancer is the absence of an effective treatment plan, with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation producing lackluster results, as Balachandran explained, according to Fox 4.

To develop individualized vaccines for each of the 16 participants in the trial, Balachandran and a team at BioNTech leveraged the proteins taken from their surgically removed pancreatic tumors, a news release from MSKCC illustrated.

The process took nine weeks from surgery to delivery of the vaccine.

As many as 20 of these proteins, known as neoantigens, were targeted in each personalized vaccine in the hope of training the body’s immune system to produce a response. This response was measured by the presence of T cells, which can target and destroy cancerous growths.

The trial participants were administered their personalized vaccine nine times over several months, according to the National Institutes of Health, which funded the research.

Eight of the 16 participants showed strong immune responses through higher T cell counts. Four had vaccine-expanded T cells that targeted more than one vaccine neoantigen.

Further monitoring showed that the cancer had not returned a year and a half after treatment among the eight participants who had a strong immune response to the vaccine. But those who did not have the same immune response saw a cancer relapse on average 13 months after their tumors had been removed, according to MSKCC.

While still in its preliminary stages, a protocol based on mRNA vaccines tailored to patients appears promising.

“It’s exciting to see that a personalized vaccine could enlist the immune system to fight pancreatic cancer — which urgently needs better treatments,” Balachandran said, according to the NIH. “It’s also motivating as we may be able to use such personalized vaccines to treat other deadly cancers.”

A larger clinical trial is now in the works to further test the efficiency of the mRNA vaccine. Whether it holds up to greater scrutiny and is then priced affordably remains to be seen.

Noting that scientists had been trying and failing to develop a cancer vaccine for decades, Ira Mellman, vice president of cancer immunology at Genentech, told The New York Times that the new research is already groundbreaking.

“Just establishing the proof of concept that vaccines in cancer can actually do something after, I don’t know, thirty years of failure is probably not a bad thing,” explained Mellman. “We’ll start with that.”

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