Potential break against killer disease

30 July 2017
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A new cancer treatment developed by a team of University of Auckland scientists is being hailed internationally as a potential breakthrough in the fight against the disease.

The treatment - which uses vaccines to boost a patient's immune system, helping it to seek and destroy tumours - has attracted giant American drug development company BioMotiv to partner the university in clinical trials over the next 18 months.

Will Charles, general manager of the Technical Department of Uniservices, the university's commercial arm, says the development could be a major step forward in cancer treatment.

"If we can show the vaccines stimulate the immune system, then they may complement and enhance conventional forms of treatment like chemotherapy and radiation."

The vaccines are designed to work by alerting the immune system to the presence of cancer cells, helping the body search for and destroy tumours.

Although a decision has yet to be made about which cancers will be trialled, Charles says it is likely patients suffering melanoma, gastric or prostate cancers will be among those selected. The trials will be carried out by SapVax, a company set up by Uniservices and BioMotiv.

The anti-cancer vaccines have been developed by a team led by Professor Rod Dunbar, a physician-scientist in the University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences, and Professor Margaret Brimble and Dr Geoff Williams, from the School of Chemical Sciences.

The vaccines differ from others being tested or in use around the world as they are based on technology using peptides - amino acids or small proteins which form building blocks for all biological processes and are necessary for the body to function effectively.

Charles says one of the reasons the immune system needs help in fighting the disease is because cancer cells can trick the body into thinking nothing is wrong. The synthetic peptide vaccines are designed to send an alert and trigger immune cells, called T cells, to search and destroy tumours.

"The real value of cancer vaccines is in being used alongside immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint blockers which re-activate immune cells switched off by cancer. Vaccines then kick in to help boost the re-activated system.

"Cancer vaccines alone have been effective in only a small number of cases. One reason may be because the patient's immune cells have never recognised the tumour; this is where they could, when combined with checkpoint blockers, lead to durable remissions.

"We are still learning about the immune system," says Charles, "and the trials will tell us how effective the vaccines will be."

He says partnering with BioMotiv, itself part of an Ohio-based $300m initiative for the advancement of medicines, gives the work of the Auckland team "international validation".

The world's first cancer vaccine was approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration in 2010 (for use in some men with prostate cancer). Although still in its infancy, the industry is expected to become a $35 billion-a-year market within 10 years.

Research like that undertaken by the Auckland team is being closely watched by medical authorities around the world. In Britain the medical journal BMC Medicine says cancer immunotherapy is emerging as an important addition to conventional therapies and is "leading the path to increased therapeutic success across a whole range of tumour types."

The National Cancer Institute in the United States says some clinical trials show cancer vaccines have increased the effectiveness of other cancer treatments while evidence suggests surgical removal of large tumours may enhance the effectiveness of vaccines.

"Recent advances in understanding how cancer cells escape recognition and attack by the immune system are now giving researchers the knowledge to design cancer treatment vaccines that can accomplish both goals," the institute says.

Charles says the clinical trials follow two years of research by the Auckland team. Funded by the Maurice Wilkins Centre of Research Excellence at the university, it was also supported by the University of Auckland Inventors' Fund and the government's Pre-seed Accelerator Fund.

The trials, to be conducted in three stages to measure the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, will involve all three Auckland scientists.

"Our partnership demonstrates the value of university seed funds that can invest early and quickly to rapidly make inventions ready for further investment," says Charles.

Baiju R. Shah, CEO of BioMotiv, says the Auckland team's discoveries present a novel platform for overcoming traditional barriers in developing cancer vaccines.

BioMotiv is part of the Harrington Project for Discovery and Development, a $300m initiative for advancing medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio. Its focus is to accelerate discoveries from research institutions into therapies able to be used on patients.