Clinician-researchers at Jefferson are testing a vaccine for patients withcolorectal cancer.
The goal is to treat patients with the vaccine, following surgery to remove the tumor, and boost the patient’s own immune response to target and destroy any remaining cancer cells in the body.
First, the researchers identified a protein expressed by the colon cancer that acts as an identification tag. Much like flu vaccines train the immune system to fight cells infected with flu virus, this experimental cancer vaccine would teach the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells expressing this marker that begin to grow in new locations throughout the body.
“In this trial, we hope to see patients develop a strong immune response to the target protein,” says immunologist Adam Snook, PhD, a research instructor in theDepartment of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeuticsat Thomas Jefferson University and lead researcher of the vaccine. “A strong immune response would give us hope that the vaccine is working as we expect.”
The final test – whether the cancer returns or not – won’t be known for a number of years and additional clinical trials.
If the vaccine does work as expected, one shot could both protect patients against the cancer cells that remain in their system after surgery and offer lifelong protection from a recurrence.
More than 140,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with colorectal cancer every year. It is a leading cause of death from cancer in both men and women.
Currently, the first line of treatment is surgery, which removes the tumor and offers patients whose cancer is caught at an early stage a good opportunity for long-term survival. However, if the cancer does return – often in new parts of the body – the recurrence is more difficult to treat.
For 12 years a multidisciplinary team of Jefferson researchers and clinicians in the Departments of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Microbiology and Immunology, Medical Oncology, Dermatology and Surgery, have worked to create a vaccine that works by boosting the body’s effort to fight the cancer.
In November 2013, the team launched a Phase I clinical trial with approvals from the Jefferson Institutional Review Board – made up of doctors and members of the community – and the Food and Drug Administration.
The first patient enrolled in the trial was vaccinated on November 21, 2013.
“This vaccine is exciting because it can potentially change the treatment of early-stage colon cancer, and the lives of patients affected with this disease,” says Dr. Snook. “Rather than being forced to wait and hope the disease does not come back, the vaccine could give patients and their doctors an opportunity to actively fight the disease and prevent its recurrence.”