With what is being dubbed a scientific breakthrough in cancer treatment, a team of researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany, has for the first time successfully trialed a universal cancer vaccine in cancer patients. The study was published in Nature yesterday.

The vaccine, called Universal Cancer Vaccine, is an attenuation of cancer’s genetic RNA code. When the vaccine was injected into the cancer’s patients, it prompted an immunological response, activating killer T-cells that attack tumors. Scientists are calling it a “very positive step” towards creating a universal cancer vaccine.

The vaccine has earlier been successfully trialed in mice where it arrested aggressively growing tumors. The positive results obliged Dr. Ugur Sahin, the lead researcher, and the team into conducting human trials. According to the paper published in the journal, the trial is still in infancy and has only been conducted in three cancer patients. There is still a long way to go. Nonetheless, the results are thrilling and have catalyzed hope among cancer survivors.

The scientists developed the vaccine by extracting tiny pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code from the patients, coating them with nanoparticles of fat and injecting them back into the cancer patients. It was thus the cancer-specific antigen. An antigen is an extrinsic or intrinsic molecule capable of inducing an immune response in the host. A coating with fat particles gave the cancer-RNA a slightly negative charge which helped it move to the target destination in the body, i.e., the dendritic immune cells that are produced in spleen, lymph nodes and bone marrow.

Once activated, the killer T-cells, a type of immune cells, assessed the invasion and began the phenomenal “mass murder” of all cancer cells in the body. This is what the earlier studies in mice demonstrated.

In successive human trials, three patients with advanced melanoma – or skin cancer – were tested with the vaccine. However, the aim of the human trial was not to test the efficacy of the vaccine; but to assess its safety. The results not only lived up to the expectations but also showed tumor regression and arrest in such patients.

In one patient, the vaccine was able to shrink the suspected tumor on a lymph node. The second patient, whose malignant tumor was excised, exhibited a cancer-free status seven months after vaccination. In the third patient, the tumors remained clinically stable and did not spread after the vaccination.

The vaccine was also able to thwart, although to a limit, the extreme sickness related to chemotherapy in these patients. In contrast, it produced limited flu-like side-effects.

Thrilling as the discovery may be, this is not the first time immunotherapy has been employed in the treatment of cancer. Immunotherapy – where patient’s own immune system is triggered to attack the cancer – has been in practice for decades now. However, the only difference this time is that compared to the expensive genetically-engineered cancer-targeting immune cells developed in the laboratory, the universal cancer vaccine is fast and inexpensive. Moreover, it can be used to target virtually any tumor antigen, not just that of melanoma.

Professor Alan Melcher, of the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “Immunotherapy for cancer is a rapidly evolving and exciting field. This new study, in mice and a small number of patients, shows that an immune response against the antigens within a cancer can be triggered by a new type of cancer vaccine.

Encouraged and excited by the findings, the team is now poised for follow-up results after 12 months. And if all goes well, the study will transform into a large clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Nevertheless, Dr. Helen Rippon, chief executive of Worldwide Cancer Research, is not much impressed by the news. She believes the current research, albeit very interesting, is far from being proven beneficial in cancer patients. More research is needed in a large number of people with cancers other than melanoma. Only then, the vaccine will live up to its claim – Universal Cancer Vaccine.

The current study is limited, laboratory-based and in an early-phase clinical trial. Nonetheless, the results are phenomenal and show that a new type of vaccine treatment can prove beneficial in patients with melanoma. It won’t be long before any substantial findings and discoveries will be reported soon. Cancer survivors need to hold tight on the hope that soon there may be a vaccination that can prevent or cure the burdensome disease.

Melanoma And How Is It Relevant To The Universal Cancer Vaccine

Melanoma, or skin cancer, accounts for less than one percent of skin cancers but is the chief cause of death among skin cancer patients. According to an estimate, more than 76,000 cases of melanoma will emerge in 2016; out of which around 10,000 will die. Ultraviolet (UV) radiations are the main cause of skin cancer. A history of sunburns increases your risk of melanoma.