While research into a cure for cancer is still ongoing, a new study suggests that a “cancer vaccine” could be the future of treating melanoma — the most deadly type of skin cancer. While a traditional vaccine attempts to prevent infections (like the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine or the flu jab), the cancer vaccine works in a different way.
According to Live Science, cancer vaccines are actually a form of immunotherapy that attack cancer cells that already exist within the body. The vaccine trains immune cells, known as T cells, to recognise cancer and target it, all the while sparing the other healthy cells in the body.
In this particular study out of the United States, the vaccine worked by targeting specific proteins within melanoma cells. Researchers found that the T cells continued to recognise these proteins for at least four years after the vaccination and were even able to learn how to identify more melanoma-related proteins as time went on.
“The only way that could have happened is if there was actually killing of the tumour cells. And presumably, it was the T cells induced by the vaccine that did that killing,” said study author Dr Catherine Wu, a physician-scientist with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
According to Dr Wu, once the tumour cells are killed, they effectively “fall apart and spill their contents”, allowing the T cells to examine these remains and store away the information for future reference. Each study participant who received the vaccine had recently undergone surgery for melanoma and received a personalised dose.
To do this, researchers took a sample of the patients’ removed tumours in order to craft a vaccine that suited their needs. By observing a genetic blueprint within the cells, the team were able to predict which proteins would build up in different cancer cells. “It’s not just taking something off the shelf, but actually taking information directly from the patient’s own tumour in order to direct the composition of the vaccine,” Dr Wu said.
According to Live Science, by the end of the four-year follow-up period, all eight participants were alive and six out of the eight showed no signs of active disease. In saying that, some had experienced cancer recurrence earlier in the period and had received additional treatments.
While the results of this research are undoubtedly promising, it’s still early days. This particular study only included eight participants, so further trials need to be conducted on more people in order to fully determine how effective the vaccine is. But, according to the authors, the limited data from this study does suggest that the vaccine triggers an immune response that can help keep cancer under control, especially when combined with other immunotherapies.