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A Quest for a Cancer Vaccine

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A Quest for a Cancer Vaccine

Apr 12, 2016

Just as our immune system kicks into gear to fight off the cold or flu, it can also mount a defense against cancer, but typically isn’t strong enough to defeat it. Mingnan Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Utah, is developing a system to boost our body’s own defenses that he anticipates could one day become the basis for a cancer vaccine. He and graduate student Peng Zhao describe their approach, recently published in Theranositcs, their progress, and its advantage over other therapeutic strategies.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: The quest for a better cancer vaccine. We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: I'm talking with Dr. Mingnan Chen, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Utah. And with his graduate student Peng Zhao, he's co-author of a new study on developing a vaccine system that could one day be used against cancers and other disorders. So vaccines against cancer, I think that's a concept that a lot of people are still trying to understand. Dr. Chen, can you explain what that is?

Dr. Chen: Yes. Our body actually has a well-fired system to protect us and immune system to protect us from cancer or various infections. However this system, by nature, is not strong enough. So we want to actually use the vaccine to boost these immune responses so we can use these immune responses against cancer. One step further we are here trying to develop the vaccine delivery and the adjuvant system, to further enhance the effectiveness of the vaccines. So then we can use it to prevent the cancer or to treat the cancer if someone gets cancer.

Interviewer: So how does the vaccine work? Is it different from, say, a flu vaccine?

Dr. Chen: Largely, it is the same as a flu vaccine. So if we know a group of people who may have a high risk of some type of cancer, like breast cancer, we can give this group of people breast cancer vaccines. So later on this vaccine will protect these people from developing breast cancer. Or we can use it as a treatment, say if a person develops breast cancer, we can use the vaccine together with surgery to treat breast cancer, to prevent the metastasis, or to prevent recurrence of breast cancer.

Interviewer: What is the vaccine made from?

Dr. Chen: The vaccine can be made from cancer cells, can be made with protein from the cancers, or from peptide from cancers. In our specific case we used peptide from cancers. This peptide will be presented by the cancer cells, sort of as the label for the cancer cells. We deliver this vaccine to our bodies so our immune system can recognize the cells with this kind of label.

Interviewer: So you're kind of teaching the immune cells how to attack that cancer?

Dr. Chen: Yes. Yes. We are teaching the immune cells. We are also using this vaccine to boost the immune cells that can attack this type of cancer cells.

Interviewer: Now obviously it's not so easy or else some of us would be getting these vaccines already. So what's kind of the tricky part in developing these vaccines?

Dr. Chen: The tricky part of the vaccine, first, is efficacy. The second is safety. The third is cost. So for the efficacy. Right now, the cancer vaccine, there's still quite a large number of clinical trials on the cancer vaccines.

However, right now there are only two of them that have been actually approved for clinical use. So we want to use this very unique vaccine delivery and adjuvant system to drastically boost the effectiveness of the cancer vaccine so it can actually show the effect in the clinics. On top of that, our vaccine delivery system also has advantage in terms of safety and in terms of preparation. So it could have a very low cost to produce this type of vaccine.

Interviewer: Some of your research is focusing on optimizing this delivery and adjuvant system. Peng, could you give me a basic idea of what that is?

Peng: The basis of the delivery system, we're using a nanoparticle based system to deliver the vaccine. Comparing to the flu vaccine, which usually are delivered by peptide, this nanoparticle delivery is actually preferred by immune cells. So the uptake is actually better.

Second, and more important, we can incorporate different abnormalities with the vaccine. In nanoparticle, just by one protein, one peptide. So it kind of addresses a problem other people cannot address. So when we are incorporating abnormalities there together, they work together to immediately show effect. Other people they have to mix it, which, generally speaking, is not that effective. That's the basis of our delivery system.

Interviewer: The nanoparticle, what does that do? Does it help stabilize the vaccine?

Peng: There are multiple views of it. So peptide is much smaller than a nanoparticle. So when we inject them they diffuse everywhere, so it's kind of like the efficiency of the immune cell to take the peptide is low. Immune cells are not designed to do that. Think about, immune cells naturally like particles like viruses, bacteria. So if you put peptides on some particle, artificial particle, it will help the immune cell to recognize them, and it gets them.

Interviewer: But it turns out you can get the particle to the immune cells, but that's only half the battle.

Peng: For a vaccine to work, after they are taken by the cells they need to be processed in order to be recognized before they are presented. So our particle actually has this responsive characteristic, which means when they are taken into the cell they can dissociate and they release the peptide for the cell to further present to other immune cells.

Dr. Chen: So we said that this system has a very good contrast of changeable stability. When we want them to be stable, they are very stable. And when we want them to become unstable, they become unstable.

Interviewer: Do you intend to take this to clinical trials?

Dr. Chen: Yes. Bringing a vaccine delivery system from benchside to bedside has been our goal from the very beginning of this project. When we set out to develop this vaccine delivery and adjuvant system about four years ago. One of the most important criteria that we had was that this system has to be biocompatible and immune compatible not only to mouse but also to human beings. So then we could actually test this system preclinically in animal models, which is very important, but also clinically in human beings.

Now that we have this system we are very excited about the idea that this system could benefit patients in the near future. We are working very hard to push this system forward so this system can be tested clinically. First we are testing this system in animal melanoma models. The results are very exciting and promising now because this system did enhance the anti-melanoma immune responses. Second, we are continuing to finesse this system so this system will have the capacity to overcome the multiple barriers that are facing cancer vaccines. So, hopefully we can bring up an even stronger delivery system so that this system will have a high likelihood to be successful in the clinic.

Lastly I want to mention that we have the intellectual properties for the system. We are looking for investments that can help us bring this system from our benchside to the hospital bedside.

Announcer: Interesting. Informative. And all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.