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Developing a vaccine to fight melanoma

24 July 2013

To address the growing burden melanoma imposes on our society, we have brought together the best expertise in New Zealand to design, manufacture and trial a new anti-cancer vaccine.

Immunotherapy is emerging as one of the most promising alternative approaches to cancer treatment, with the potential to eradicate cancer with very few side-effects. 

On TVNZ ONE News tonight, Associate Professor Ian Hermans and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Lindsay Ancelet spoke with Renee Graham about the Malaghan Institute's cancer vaccine programme and upcoming melanoma vaccine trial, which is due to start early 2014.  The melanoma vaccine trial is the culmination of a five year Health Research Council of New Zealand funded programme being undertaken in collaboration with Capital & Coast District Health Board, The Ferrier Research Institute, Cancer Trials New Zealand and The University of Auckland. 

The novel feature of the cancer vaccine that will be used in the melanoma trial is the inclusion of a glycolipid called ?-galactosylceramide, which Assoc Prof Hermans' basic research has shown induces significantly stronger anti-tumour immune responses than vaccines without it. While the ?-galactosylceramide used in this trial is completely synthetic, it is modelled on a natural product originally isolated from marine sponges.

How the vaccine is made and how it works

The immune system has all the properties that are required to complement existing treatments and eradicate cancer. White blood cells called T cells can discriminate between normal and cancer cells, they have powerful cancer killing capability and can move around the body to eliminate tumours that have spread to other tissues.

For the immune system to elicit an effective anti-tumour immune response, two things need to happen. The cancer-fighting T cells first need to ‘see’ the tumour. They also need to be supported so they can mount a big enough immune response to destroy it. This is where the cancer vaccine (or immunotherapy) comes into play.

The melanoma vaccine will be made from dendritic cells isolated from the patient’s blood, and synthetic protein fragments (peptides) that are common to melanomas. The two are mixed together in the laboratory and left for a few days to ensure the dendritic cells are suitably ready to present the information about the tumour peptides to the cancer fighting T cells of the body.

The vaccine is then injected back into the patient and the dendritic cells traffic to sites in the body where T cells reside, to educate them about the presence of the melanoma. An immune-boosting adjuvant called ?-galactosylceramide is included within the vaccine to ensure maximum T cell activation. This is the first time this compound has ever been investigated in the context of a cancer vaccine in patients.

For further information

Please note, this trial is in the early safety testing phase and is not currently recruiting new patients. For more information, please contact Marina Dzhelali, Research Service Leader for the Capital & Coast District Health Board on +64 4 918 5117 or by email, [email protected].