Vaccines represent some of the most effective preventive medical advances ever. They have greatly reduced or all but eliminated many of our most feared and dangerous infectious diseases and have saved countless lives. And that’s how most people think of them—as preventing infectious diseases by priming the body’s immune system to immediately recognize and eliminate pathogens. But what if it would be possible to do the same thing for more complex diseases, including cancer?
According to a recent paper in Science Translational Medicine from leaders in the Human Vaccine Project, cancer vaccines may be closer to reality than many people realize. The authors, including JAX Professors Jacques Banchereau, Ph.D., and Karolina Palucka, Ph.D., present the 40-year pursuit of cancer vaccines and some of the formidable challenges that have impeded their development to this point. So why is there reason for more optimism today? The paper states that it’s the ability to use “large-scale genomics and proteomics to define the ‘normal’ immune system,” and, as a result, more completely understand what happens when the system activates and reacts to a pathogen or foreign tissue.
The remaining impediments to effective cancer vaccines include an incomplete understanding of human B and T cell mechanisms, insufficient data about the antigens required for disease and prevention and control, and the need to develop strategies for specific and lasting immune responses. At the top of the priority list for vaccine development is to identify, prioritize and deliver cancer-related antigens that induce a cancer-specific, durable immune response. Given that tumor cells create a microenvironment that helps them evade immune response, there are numerous difficulties involved with immune recognition and action. But many tumor antigen choices have emerged that can be addressed in clinical studies to elicit the most robust immune response.
The Human Vaccine Project gathers a core network of pharmaceutical companies, clinical and basic research centers, and a bioinformatics/data center. The combined effort will seek “to decode the human immune system” to accelerate progress. Effective cancer vaccine would obviously change the therapeutic landscape and provide powerful, clinically useful tools. The authors conclude: “By complementing ongoing global efforts and closely integrating academic, government, pharmaceutical and biotechnology stakeholders in a flexible large-scale global consortium, this should provide the potential for achieving the next transformative step in conquering cancer: the development of clinically effective vaccines and immunotherapies.”
The Human Vaccines Project: A roadmap for cancer vaccine development