Personalized melanoma vaccines can be used to marshal a powerful immune response against unique mutations in patients’ tumors, according to early data in a first-in-people clinical trial reported in Science (2015; doi:10.1126/science.aaa3828).
The tailor-made vaccines, given to three patients with advanced melanoma, appeared to increase the number and diversity of cancer-fighting T cells responding to the tumors. The finding is a boost to cancer immunotherapy, a treatment strategy that unleashes the immune system to seek out and destroy cancer.
In a new approach, the research team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, developed cancer vaccines by first sequencing the genomes of patients’ tumors and samples of the patients’ healthy tissues to identify mutated proteins called neoantigens unique to the tumor cells. Then, using computer algorithms and laboratory tests, the researchers were able to predict and test which of those neoantigens would be most likely to provoke a potent immune response and would be useful to include in a vaccine.
The vaccines were given to melanoma patients who had had surgery to remove their tumors but whose cancer cells had spread to the lymph nodes, an indicator the deadly skin cancer is likely to recur. These clinical findings set the stage for a phase I vaccine trial, approved by the Food and Drug Administration as part of an investigational new drug application. The trial will enroll six patients.
Data on the immune response seen in the first three patients is reported in the paper. If additional testing in more patients indicates the vaccines are effective, they may one day be given to patients after surgery to stimulate the immune system to attack lingering cancer cells and prevent a recurrence.
“This proof-of-principle study shows that these custom-designed vaccines can elicit a very strong immune response,” said senior author Gerald Linette, MD, PhD, a Washington University medical oncologist leading the clinical trial at Siteman Cancer Center and Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“The tumor antigens we inserted into the vaccines provoked a broad response among the immune system’s killer T cells responsible for destroying tumors. Our results are preliminary, but we think the vaccines have therapeutic potential based on the breadth and remarkable diversity of the T-cell response.”
It’s too early to say whether the vaccines will be effective in the long term, the researchers cautioned. The study was designed to evaluate safety and immune response; however, none of the patients has experienced adverse side effects.
“This is about as personalized as vaccines can get,” said co-author Elaine Mardis, PhD, co-director of the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University, where the cancer genome sequencing, analysis and neoantigen prediction were performed. “The approach we describe is fundamentally different from conventional mutation discovery, which focuses on identifying mutated genes that drive cancer development. Instead, we’re looking for a unique set of mutated proteins in a patient’s tumor that would be most likely to be recognized by the immune system as foreign.”