16 November 2021
Clinical trial with new lung cancer vaccine started
Last week a new clinical trial with a vaccine against non-small cell lung cancer started at Erasmus MC. The vaccine teaches the immune system of lung cancer patients to recognize and clear tumor cells. Developed in the lab of Oncode Investigator Sjoerd van der Burg at Leiden University Medical Center, the technology may offer relief to a large proportion of the nearly 10,000 patients who receive this diagnosis each year.
Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common form of lung cancer. In 80% of cases, the tumor is already unresponsive to existing treatments, including forms of immunotherapy, at the time of diagnosis. Treatment options for these people are therefore very limited. The research team led by Sjoerd van der Burg and Joachim Aerts, pulmonary oncologist at Erasmus MC, hopes to change this with an innovative approach based on a therapeutic vaccine. The phase 1/2 clinical trial launched today will look at the safety and tolerability of the vaccine and the dose needed to elicit a good immune response in 24 patients, with the first results expected in 2023.
Every downside has its upside
The innovative vaccine is all about activating the body's own immune system to fight lung cancer. "The immune system normally recognizes faulty or foreign proteins that are on the surface of your cells," explains research leader Sjoerd van der Burg. "In this way, a tumor cell can be recognized as such and cleared by immune cells. Unfortunately, a tumor very often bypasses this system, which makes it invisible to the immune system."
In 2006, it was already clear that on the surface of these 'invisible' tumor cells, fragments of normal proteins can be found. Exactly what kind of fragments that are was unclear for a long time, but recent research by Thorbald van Hall in Van der Burg's group changed that. "In 2018, we published new research in which we had mapped a number of these fragments. Moreover, it turned out that those fragments occur exclusively on tumor cells and not on healthy cells. Tumor cells are therefore still molecularly distinguishable from healthy cells. With our vaccine, we want to ensure that the immune system can make that distinction and therefore still initiate an immune response against the tumor."
Impact for patients
On average, 65% of all people with cancer are still alive 5 years after diagnosis. For non-small cell lung cancer, this is only 20%. So new treatment options are desperately needed. "An important factor in the low survival rates for someone with non-small cell lung cancer is the time of diagnosis. The disease is often dormant long before we can make the diagnosis," says oncologist Joachim Aerts, lung cancer specialist at Eramus MC. "Because of that late diagnosis, in many cases the tumor is already insensitive to treatment, partly because the cancer cells become unrecognizable to the immune system. The vaccine that we will now investigate, could therefore be a solution for a large group of people." In addition, the molecular principle that the vaccine targets is also commonly found in other forms of cancer, including melanoma. The vaccine thus has quite some potential.
A new milestone for Oncode
For Oncode, the start of this research marks an important milestone. Since its foundation in 2018, the institute has focused on funding fundamental cancer research and translating its results into practical applications for patients. "That translation is not easy," says Chris De Jonghe, valorisation director of Oncode Institute. "It is a profession in itself, which is why we have brought together a team of specialists at Oncode to help our researchers with this." Oncode also offers additional funding opportunities to make this translation possible, such as for the early phases of clinical research. The vaccine that will now be tested is a new product, the entire development of which was funded by Oncode amongst others. "It took only three years from the first publication of the research results to the start of this clinical trial. This underlines Oncode's mission to accelerate the translation of fundamental research into new treatments for patients. And of course, we hope for positive outcomes for patients with lung cancer," concludes de Jonghe.