White lab mouse with tubes

Chemo-free cancer ‘vaccine’ moves to human trials

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The chemotherapy-free treatment under development at Stanford University has proved promising in mouse models and is due to move to human trials this year.

A recent study conducted on mice demonstrated that the treatment was able to cure 97 per cent of mice from their tumours. It was effective in treating lymphoma, melanoma, and breast and colon tumours and worked all over the body.

This new treatment is a form of immunotherapy: therapy which stimulates or supresses the body’s immune system in order to fight disease. This could be used to treat various diseases, but efforts are mostly directed towards treating cancer with this approach. In 2017, the FDA approved a type of cancer immunotherapy, CAR-T, which uses genetically modified white blood cells to attack tumours. Although this treatment is highly expensive and only used as a last resort, it has already been credited with vastly improving survival rates for leukaemia and lymphoma patients.

In comparison, the approach under development at Stanford University does not require modification of immune cells.

The treatment is not a true ‘vaccine’, as it does not result in permanent immunity, although it shares some similarities to a conventional vaccine. The tumour is injected with two rounds of stimulators which cause the patient’s T cells – a type of white blood cell – to attack cancer cells. The first stimulator amplifies the expression of an activating receptor on the surface of the T cells, and the second activates the T cells to attack the tumours.

The stimulators have already been demonstrated to be safe when used separately, with mild side effects, and make use of a drug which has already been approved by the FDA for treating melanoma skin cancer.

While a small dose of radiation is used alongside the stimulators, no chemotherapy is involved.

Now, the Stanford team are looking for human volunteers with low-grade lymphoma: a slow-growing type of blood cancer which is difficult to treat. The Stanford team hope to have carried out two (Phase I) human trials by the end of the year, involving approximately 35 test subjects. If human patients react as the mice did to the treatment, it could be used to treat a range of cancers.

“This is in its early days and we are still looking for safety and looking to make this as good as it can be,” said Professor Ronald Levy, the Stanford oncologist leading the effort, in a statement. “Getting the immune system to fight cancer is one of the most recent developments in cancer.”

Levy expects that if this treatment proves effective in human patients, it will take at least one to two years to gain FDA approval.

Due to the complications involved with chemotherapy - such as nausea and hair loss - countless research teams are working on alternative forms of cancer therapy, such as immunotherapy and photothermal therapy.

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