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It aims to stop tumours growing back after surgery by boosting the body’s ability to find and destroy cancerous cells, raising hopes that more patients can be cured. The vaccine could become “a vital new weapon against the deadliest common cancer”, it was said.
Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst survival rates, with just a quarter of sufferers still alive one year after diagnosis.
Researchers at the Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center in New York partnered with German firm BioNTech – known for its Covid success.
Dr Vinod Balachandran, of MSK, said: “Unlike for other cancers, where new therapies have ushered in improvements in outcome for patients, for pancreatic cancer currently all therapies are largely ineffective.
“These mRNA vaccines do appear to have an ability to stimulate immune responses in pancreatic cancer patients. We’re very excited.”
Previous research had found that patients who beat the odds and survived for longer had proteins in their tumours which acted like homing beacons for immune cells to target them.
Scientists set about finding a way to artificially induce this effect in others.
Tumour samples from 16 people in a US trial were shipped from New York to Germany, where each vaccine was made with mRNA containing genetic information specific to the proteins in the patient’s tumour.
When administered, the vaccine stimulates the body to produce these proteins so immune cells learn to recognise them. The 16 patients received an immunotherapy drug followed by nine doses of the vaccine, given via an IV drip.
Half responded well and the treatment activated T-cells that recognised their tumour cells.
After 18 months, none of those eight patients had seen their cancer recur. Of the remaining patients, six had relapsed.
For pancreatic cancer, currently all therapies are largely ineffective
Dr Vinod Balachandran
Dr Balachandran said larger trials were needed but the early results suggest that patients who have a good response may be more likely to remain cancer free.
He explained that nine infusions were needed – eight primary doses and a booster – because it is much harder to train the body to attack cells that are part of itself, rather than an invading pathogen such as COVID-19.
The trial was the first in the world to use mRNA technology to treat pancreatic cancer. It targeted pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), which accounts for more than 95 percent of cases.
The patients all had early stage disease but further studies could test the vaccine against advanced cancers.
Dr Balachandran said pancreatic cancer was a “poster child” for the hardest to treat forms.
He added: “Any ability to treat pancreatic cancer with a new therapy, we hope, can allow us to now test this mRNA technology in other cancers more broadly. Hopefully it paves the way.”
Some 10,500 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer annually in the UK and there are 9,600 deaths.
Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze died of the disease in 2009, aged just 57.
Professor Özlem Türeci, the co-founder of BioNTech, said the team was “trying to break new ground in the treatment of such hard-to-treat tumours”.
She added: “With only under five percent of patients responding to current treatment options, PDAC is one of the highest unmet medical need cancers.
“The result of this Phase 1 study are encouraging. We look forward to further evaluating these early results in a larger randomised study.”
Dr Chris MacDonald, head of research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, said surgery is currently the only treatment but in 75 per cent of cases tumours return.
He added: “This is a wonderfully elegant approach to that problem, utilising technology that we now know how to wield much more effectively thanks to the incredible advances in mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.
“If in future we are able to create an individualised vaccine based on the very specific genetic changes to a person’s pancreatic cancer, as the team have done here, it could help overcome the disease’s ability to evade our body’s natural defences and trigger the strong immune response needed to destroy it.
“Such a vaccine would be a vital new weapon against the deadliest common cancer.”
The findings were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference in Chicago.
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