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Israeli researchers develop vaccine to fight cancer
TEL AVIV, Israel—Researchers at Vaxil Biotherapeutics, along with scientists at the University of Tel Aviv, have developed a revolutionary vaccine targeted to train cancer patients' own bodies to seek out and destroy tumor cells.
If successful, this groundbreaking modality could change the way doctors treat—and the way patients view—future cancer treatment.
The unique therapy targets a molecule found in 90 percent of all cancers, and could provide a universal injection that allows patients' immune systems to fight off common cancers including breast and prostate cancer.
Preliminary results from early clinical trials held at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem have shown the vaccine can trigger an immune response in patients and reduce levels of disease. But before the new vaccine is crowned a miracle drug, scientists hope to conduct larger trials in patients to prove the vaccine can be effective against a range of different cancers.
A total of 10 patients suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, received the vaccine at the Hadassah center, Vaxil reported. Seven of the patients have now finished the treatment and all of them had greater immunity against cancer cells than they did before they were given the vaccine. Three of these patients following the treatment are free of detectable cancer, Vaxil stated.
If all goes well, the vaccine could be available about six years down the road to administer on a regular basis to not only to help treat cancer, but also to keep the disease from recurring and prevent the spread of disease in patients who have undergone other forms of treatment such as surgery.
The key to the vaccine's early success lies in a molecule called MUC1, which is found in high amounts on the surface of cancer cells and can be used to help the immune system detect tumors, Vaxil states.
Cancer cells usually invade a patient's immune systems because they are not recognized as being a threat. While the immune system usually attacks foreign cells such as bacteria, tumors are formed of the patient's own cells that have malfunctioned.
If the substance works as hoped, VaxHit could be applied to most cancers, including solid and non- solid tumors, Vaxil states.
"In cancer, the body knows something is not quite right, but the immune system doesn't know how to protect itself against the tumor like it does against an infection or virus. This is because cancer cells are the body's own cells gone wrong," says Julian Levy, Vaxil's CEO. "Coupled with that, a cancer patient has a depressed immune system caused both by the illness and the treatment."
The trick is to activate a compromised immune system to mobilize against the threat. The vaccine works more like a drug in that a traditional vaccine helps the body's immune system fend off foreign invaders such as bacteria or viruses, and is administered to people who have not yet had the ailment, Levy says. Therapeutic vaccines like the one Vaxil has developed are given to sick people and work more like a drug.
Specifically, Levy explains that it works like this: Vaxil's lead product, ImMucin, activates the immune system by "training" T-cells—the immune cells that protect the body by searching out and destroying cells that display a specific molecule (or marker)—to target MUC1, which is found on cancer cells but not healthy cells. The T-cells don't attack any cells without MUC1, meaning there are no side effects unlike traditional cancer treatments. Since more than 90 percent of different cancers have MUC1 on their cells, the potential for this vaccine is impressive.
"It's a really big thing," says Levy, a biotechnology entrepreneur who was formerly CEO of Biokine Therapeutics. "If you give chemo, apart from the really nasty side effects, what often happens is that cancer becomes immune [to it]. The tumor likes to mutate and actually develops an ability to hide from the treatment. Our vaccines are also designed to overcome that problem."
For cancers in an advanced stage, treatments like chemo or surgery to remove a large tumor will still be needed, but if the cancer can be brought down to scale, the body is then able to deal with it, Levy explains. ImMucin is foreseen as a long-term strategy—a shot every few months, with no side effects—to stop the cancer from reoccurring after initial treatments. The patient's own immune system keeps it under control.
It's too early at this point to consider a commercial partner, says Michal Efraty, Vaxil's public relations consultant.
"The market of therapeutic vaccines is young but very dynamic, and hopefully with the approval of new products, more potential partners will enter this field," Efraty says.
In parallel, Vaxil is also working on a vaccine that treats tuberculosis, a disease that's increasing worldwide, including in the developed world, and for which the current vaccine is often ineffective and treatment is problematic.
Reaction to these results has been mixed. However, Dr. Kat Arney, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, is less impressed with the vaccine.
"There are several groups around the world investigating treatments that target MUC1, as it's a very interesting target involved in several types of cancer," Arney said in a news release. "These are very early results that are yet to be fully published, so there's a lot more work to be done to prove that this particular vaccine is safe and effective in cancer patients."
Kristen Griffin, a writer for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, is cautiously optimistic about the vaccine, noting that the side effects were minimal, and the chief complaint from the initial test group was minor skin irritation.
"Though the results from the small study are impressive, ImMucin is years away from commercial production," Griffin stated. "Further clinical trials and a lengthy approval and regulatory process will delay the commercial production of the vaccine. However, ImMucin is expected to hit the shelves as early as 2020."
ImMucin may be used independently or in combination with other cancer treatments, and may be used after certain procedures, such as radiation or surgery, to prevent future tumors from growing, she wrote.
"For such cancers that do not respond well to traditional treatment options, ImMucin offers hope," Griffin said. "ImMucin triggers the body's natural defense mechanism—the immune system—to recognize the sugary molecule known as MUC1 and destroys the tumor. Even cancers as rare as multiple myeloma—the test group—contain the MUC1 molecule like mesothelioma, a deadly disease linked to chronic asbestos exposure, a toxin used in manufacturing."
The applications of ImMucin for difficult or rare cancers "are limitless: further malignancies can be stopped, inoperable tumors can be slowed and the complete cessation of the disease," she added.