A vaccination that cures cancer patients: the invention of a Geneva researcher could make it possible.
Cancer vaccinations, in which one can be vaccinated preventively against cancer, are already dying. For example, the HPV vaccine, which IS recommended for young girls and boys: it prevents infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.
Targeted stimulation of the immune system
But behind the term “cancer vaccination” there is a completely different idea, namely that the immune system is not stimulated in advance, but specifically in people who are already ill, and thus fights the cancer. This is not a new idea – and at the same time one that has not yet really taken off, says Adrian Ochsenbein, head of medical oncology at the Inselspital Bern: “Vaccination strategies for cancer have a difficult history. Vaccination has been tried for centuries, but so far with little therapeutic success.”
Now there is movement in this research. At the forefront: the Geneva-based biotechnologist Madiha Derouazi and her start-up Amal Therapeutics. Derouazi has developed a platform together with the French immunologist Elodie Belnou – a vaccine platform. This is a kind of tool kit that could be used against different types of cancer or diseases.
Kinetic potential remains to be seen
Thanks to this tool kit, the components of a vaccine can be assembled individually; the immune system of cancer patients is trained to recognize the cancer. That means: “You grant a vaccine, but ultimately it is your own immune system that attacks the cancer cells,” says Derouzai.
Madiha Derouazi has been nominated for this year’s European Patent Office Innovation Award for her invention, together with Elodie Belnou. Adrian Ochsenbein thinks this is well deserved: “It’s a new therapy strategy that may induce more efficient immune responses,” says the Bern specialist, but puts it into perspective: “The clinical potential remains to be seen.” While the platform could overcome previous difficulties of therapeutic cancer vaccination, it is still only a promise.
The idea is popular
Angelika Riemer is head of the Immunotherapy and Prevention department at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg and also researches therapeutic cancer vaccines. It is integrated into the invention from Geneva: “This basic research is really top-class,” she says. “Here it was analyzed very precisely whether this vaccine platform works well.”
So it works
Madiha Derouazi and Elodie Belnou’s vaccine platform consists of three components:
- First: Antigen. These are cancerous components of the tumor that you want to attack. Packed into a molecule, the antigens are introduced into the body.
- second: A so-called peptide sits on the tip of this molecule – a small protein with the ability to penetrate the immune cells. It thus ensures that the antigens enter the immune cells, the so-called antigen-presenting cells.
- Third: An additional, improved peptide. It signals “Danger!” to the antigen-presenting cells. – so that they become active.
In their laboratory and animal experiments, the Geneva researchers showed “that the three-part construct of the vaccination platform can trigger very strong immune responses and kill cancer cells in the process,” says Angelika Riemer from the German Cancer Research Center.
The platform is currently being tested in a phase I study in the treatment of people suffering from colorectal cancer. Has therapeutic cancer vaccination now been a success? They will “have to find their place,” Adrian Ochsenbein is convinced, “above all because the developments are running at high speed.”
The Bernese oncologist sees the greatest potential in combining different approaches. Today, many types of cancer, for which the prognosis was previously poor, can be treated well or even cured thanks to so-called immunotherapies. As a result, the immune system is strengthened with medication. With vaccines, the immune response would be activated in a much more targeted manner. This could further improve the patient’s chances of survival.