Clinical trials could be just 3 – 5 years away
Researchers say they are close to developing a cancer vaccine, and they are using ovarian cancer patients in British Columbia as the testing ground.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Brad Nelson at BC Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre in Victoria is exploring the possibility of using the inherent genomic instability of cancer to make it a target for individualized therapy.
Ovarian cancer — the most severe of all gynecological cancers — claims the lives of over 1,750 Canadian women every year. Just as each woman fighting the disease is unique, so are their cancers. Decades of research and recent technological advances have proven that every tumour and tumour mutation is different in every patient. It is this distinction that has set the stage for a personalized cancer vaccine.
“Modern genomics technology, specifically next-generation sequencing, allows us to identify all of the mutations in a patient’s tumour,” says Dr. Nelson. “With this information, we can design a vaccine that helps the immune system recognize the mutations. Once activated, the immune system starts to attack the tumour as if it were a foreign body. In laboratory models, we have been able to eradicate even advanced tumors within a matter of weeks. While there is still considerable work to be done before this approach is used in the clinic, the results so far are very encouraging.”
Genome British Columbia is funding the project comes from its Strategic Opportunities Fund, a program that provides one-time funding to help seed innovative projects of key strategic importance to the life sciences community.
To facilitate Dr. Nelson’s work, close to 100 ovarian cancer patients in the Victoria area are donating tumour specimens and blood samples on a regular basis. These samples are being used to learn which tumour mutations are most strongly recognized by the immune system. It is expected that the first clinical trials of the ovarian cancer vaccine will be launched in three to five years.
“I have given tissue samples and I still give blood regularly for Dr. Nelson’s work because it is important for researchers to have more detail – it’s too late for a cancer vaccine to help me, but my hope is that this research will save my daughters and granddaughters some agony,” says Lorraine Dixon, a participant in the research project and cancer survivor.
It has been known for many years that cancers tend to accumulate mutations over time, and indeed some of these mutations are directly responsible for the aggressive ‘phenotype’ of cancerous cells. However, genomics technology has only now allowed scientists to fully exploit and amplify the natural process of the immune system in fighting foreign cells.
“As demonstrated by Dr. Nelson’s work, and the tremendous work being done by other investigators, the investment being made by Genome BC is making a significant difference to the well-being of Canadians,” says Dr. Alan Winter, CEO of Genome BC. “It will be very satisfying to see the tangible results from this work in as little as three years’ time.”
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $550M in research projects and science and technology platforms.
About the Author (Author Profile)
Markham began his journalism career writing columns in the mid-1980s for Western People Magazine, then reported for a small Saskatchewan daily. He has spent most of his career in media and communications, likes to dabble in politics, was actively involved in economic development for many years, thinks that what goes on in the community is just as important as what happens provincially and nationally, and has a soft spot for small business (big business, not so much). Markham is a bit of a contrarian and usually has a unique take on the events of the day.