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UGA Vaccine Could be Big Anti-Cancer Agent

December 13, 2013

Orginally published Jan. 03, 2012

Researchers at the University of Georgia and the Mayo Clinic hope they’ve found a way to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Working with mice, UGA chemistry professor Geert-Jan Boons and the Mayo Clinic’s Sandra Gendler have developed a vaccine that actually can seek out and kill cancer cells — including fast-growing cancers that kill quickly.

The body’s immune system recognizes foreign bacteria and other invaders in the human body, fighting back with killer cells and antibodies that snuff out invaders. But because cancer is produced within our own bodies — our own cells growing out of control — the immune system usually doesn’t recognize anything is wrong.

“The idea of a vaccine is that you try to train the body’s immune system to try to recognize (cancer cells),” Boons said.

Boons and Gendler found a way to train mice immune systems to recognize a protein called MUC1, which is in about 70 percent of killing cancers but not in normal cells.

The new vaccine could be used to prevent recurrences of cancer, to prevent cancer in patients at high risk of developing a cancer, and also could be used together with other therapies to fight cancers that can’t be beaten back with surgery, such as pancreatic cancer, the researchers hope.

The National Cancer Institute has tagged the MUC1 vaccine as one of the most promising potential cancer-fighting drugs researchers are working on, Boons said.

The vaccine could potentially be effective against many common cancers, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer, but won’t be effective against a few others, such as melanoma or cervical cancer, he said. Other researchers are trying to find vaccines for those cancers, however.

The researchers still don’t know if the vaccine will work in humans.

“We think we’ve made a very exciting discovery, but going from a mouse to a human is a very big step,” Boons said. “We are very optimistic, but you always have to be cautious.”

Early results are promising; their vaccine reduced the size of breast and pancreatic cancer tumors in mice by an average of 80 percent. Mouse tumors are not exactly like human tumors, however.

Testing the drug in humans to make sure it works and is safe will take a long time. Even if trials and further tests go well, six or seven years may pass before the vaccine is commercially available, he said.

“Next, in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, we will see if it is safe in humans and can mount the same type of response in human immune systems,” said Boon, who has been looking for the right combination for a vaccine for about eight years.

The researchers have formed a company they call Viamune to develop and commercialize the vaccine; for now its offices and laboratories will be in the UGA Biobusiness Center, an incubator building for life sciences start-up companies that grow out of UGA researchers’ discoveries.

Their research was funded by the National Cancer Institute, the Mayo Breast Specialized Program of Research Excellence Grant and the Mayo Pancreas SPORE Grant.

Reprinted with permission of Athens-Banner Herald