Vaccines have been a hot topic in the headlines—blueprints that train the immune system to target a disease-causing pathogen without producing an actual illness. COVID-19 vaccines, for example, present immune cells with the spike protein of the coronavirus. After this stimulation, vaccines prime memory T cells and antibody-producing B cells to effectively fight off the virus, should they encounter it in the future.
Vaccines aren’t just used for fending off bacteria and viruses. An emerging field of medicine is exploring ways of using vaccines to prevent or treat cancer. Cancer vaccines use cells, genetically-engineered viruses, proteins, or genetic material to manipulate the immune system to better recognize and destroy cancer cells.
This innovative approach to battling cancer with the power of the immune system falls under the umbrella of immunotherapy and has been hailed as one of the most promising scientific breakthroughs. In spite of cancer vaccines’ transformative potential, scientists still face several challenges in making safe, effective therapies. For instance, some cancer patients have weakened immune systems (as a result of chemotherapy or other factors), so vaccines may not trigger a potent immune response. In addition, finding the right molecular cancer targets to direct immune cells to can be tricky.
Recently, cancer researchers in the UK have kicked off a clinical trial testing the safety and effectiveness of a new experimental cancer vaccine against the most common type of lung cancer. Around 85 percent of lung cancer patients have non-small-cell lung cancer, a malignancy of the epithelial cells in the lungs. This cancer is notoriously resistant to conventional chemotherapy interventions, which has spurred studies around alternative strategies to treat patients.
Accordingly, in collaboration with industry partners Vaccitech Oncology, Oxford researchers developed VTP-600, a therapeutic cancer vaccine powered by an engineered chimpanzee adenovirus.
Professor Fiona Blackhall, the researcher leading the trial, said there is an urgent need to develop better treatments to save the lives of patients with non-small-cell lung cancer.
“The VTP-600 immunotherapeutic vaccine is a cutting edge technology which targets a patient’s immune system to tackle cancer cells,” said Blackhall, adding that the trial will be conducted across ten specialist hospitals across the UK.
The full VTP-600 treatment regime consists of three shots, one prime, and two booster shots.