This is the goal that many researchers have been working towards for years: to develop a vaccine that can act as a barrier to cancer. And when a large part of Italy is preparing to ‘close for holidays’ from one of the most active research centers in our country, good news arrives: a study – small and basic, certainly but promising – that has tested the potential of an anti-cancer vaccine based on a gorilla adenovirus, rendered harmless and charged with carrying different traits of cancer cells against which to target the immune system. In practice, instead of producing antibodies against a virus, it produces antigens specific to a certain type of tumor.
The research, conducted by researchers from the Armenise-Harvard immunoregulation laboratory at the Italian Institute for Genomic Medicine (Iigm) and the Italian-Swiss biotech Nouscom, was published in ‘Science Translational Medicine’. Among the authors of the research, Luigia Pace, director of the Armenise-Harvard immunoregulation laboratory at the IRCCS Piedmont Foundation for Oncology in Candiolo. She explains how this vaccine works, what the results of the trial have been and what perspectives open up. The trial was also conducted thanks to the support of the AIRC Foundation for Cancer Research
Doctor Pace, researchers have always wagered with therapeutic vaccines to be able to treat cancer as if it were a virus that attacks the organism: is your research also going in this direction?
“Yes, the research activities are aimed at identifying what has changed in the virus compared to a normal cell in order to be able to attack it as a foreign organism, just like a virus”.
How does your own vaccine work and what is the difference from other studies conducted so far?
“It is a vaccine that exploits a virus rendered harmless, in which, like a Trojan horse, we have inserted the mutations of the tumor. In this way it is possible to awaken the response of specific T lymphocytes against that type of mutation, which the tumor made it exhausted and non-functional “.
Why can treating cancer with a virus be a winning strategy?
“Because a specific response against tumor antigens is activated. Our study showed that this vaccine is capable of inducing immunological memory cells, a population of blood cells essential to protect us. “
The trial was carried out on a small sample of 12 patients with colon cancer of the MSI type (instability of microsatellites) in the metastatic phase: why this type of tumor?
“In this tumor we have identified particular antigens shared by multiple patients in order to make a vaccine that would suit all patients with MSI. For other cancers, a personalized approach will be needed, that is, a vaccine for each patient.
In addition to the vaccine, the patients received an immunotherapy drug belonging to the family of immune checkpoint inhibitors. Because?
“Yes, our preclinical trial had already shown us that when the disease is advanced, combined treatment is needed.”
What results have you achieved?
“Patients largely responded to treatment; the effectiveness in some of them lasted for about two years. The results are encouraging but still preliminary: the clinical trial takes its time to lead to the approval of the drug “.
What prospects does this research open?
“We have understood what is the mechanism of action that determines the effectiveness of the vaccine: thanks to this increased knowledge we can transform our experimental analyzes into more precise targeted therapies for each patient. Furthermore, considering that the technique for making these vaccines is decidedly tested and that the data obtained in the first clinical trial are very promising, there is a real possibility of creating new vaccines effective against many other types of cancer “.
What are the next steps?
“We will continue the fruitful collaborative research activity between Nouscom and IGM to deepen and broaden the knowledge on the immunological mechanisms responsible for the attack on the tumor with the aim of enriching and improving the therapeutic options to be offered to cancer patients”.