Scientists are building on the success of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to also develop a vaccine against cancer.

Researchers have developed a cancer vaccine using the technology behind AstraZeneca’s “Oxford vaccine.” And the preliminary results are promising. For example, the survival chances of mice appear to have increased considerably thanks to the vaccine.

Cancer Immunotherapy

One of the current cancer treatments is cancer immunotherapy. This is an artificial way of stimulating one’s own immune system to fight against a tumor. This relatively new cancer treatment has led to remarkable improvements in some cancer patients. There are several types of immunotherapy, including PD-1 immunotherapy. Under certain circumstances, T cells can recognize and destroy (cancer) cells that are naturally produced in the body. But despite this success, PD-1 immunotherapy is not working in most cancer patients.

T cells

One reason for this is that some patients have very few T cells that can actually recognize and effectively destroy cancer cells. However, the technology behind the Oxford vaccine against the coronavirus generates strong T-cell responses. And it is precisely these that are urgently needed to fight tumors.

The technology behind the Oxford vaccine
After someone is injected with the Oxford vaccine against the coronavirus, they pass the genetic code for the spike protein (which the virus uses to cling to and penetrate our cells) to the cells in the body. From that moment on, the body starts to produce the spike protein itself. Immune cells in the blood recognize the spike protein as an ‘invader’ and the immune system reacts accordingly. The body makes antibodies and immune cells (called T cells) that destroy cells with the spike protein. The immune cells also ensure that more immune cells are produced to help fight the ‘invaders’. The immune system then proceeds to produce memory cells. These memory cells can recognize the coronavirus in the future by recognizing the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. If the immune cells encounter the coronavirus in the body, they can cause more antibodies and T cells to be produced very quickly. This prevents the spread of the coronavirus and reduces the damage caused by COVID-19.

In the new study, researchers have built on the success of the Oxford vaccine and used the technology behind it to effectively treat cancer as well. The team developed a two-dose cancer vaccine. The vaccine specifically targets two MAGE-type proteins (called MAGE-A3 and NY-ESO-1) that are present on the surface of many types of cancer cells. “We knew from previous research that MAGE-type proteins form a kind of red cloth and attract immune cells that destroy tumors,” says researcher Benoit Van den Eynde. “MAGE proteins are present on a wide range of cancer types. This means that this approach could work for many people with many different types of cancer.”

The researchers tested their vaccine on mice. And the results are promising. For example, the vaccine indeed appears to trigger the T-cell response that makes short work of tumors. The vaccine therefore significantly improved the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy. Compared to immunotherapy alone, the combination with the vaccine resulted in smaller tumors and improved survival of the mice. “Our cancer vaccines elicit strong T-cell responses that infiltrate tumors,” said researcher Adrian Hill. “It could therefore lead to better outcomes for cancer patients.”

The researchers are therefore very enthusiastic about their study. “This new vaccine has the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment,” Hill even dares to say. The researchers will soon test the vaccine in combination with PD-1 immunotherapy among eighty cancer patients.