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Could an experimental cancer vaccine successfully target aggressive brain tumors? Image credit: Marco Govel/Stocksy.
  • Researchers estimate that more than 13,000 Americans received a diagnosis of glioblastoma — a type of brain cancer — in 2022.
  • There is currently no cure for glioblastoma.
  • Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital developed a new cell therapy to both eliminate established tumors and act as a cancer vaccine to prevent new tumors from forming.

Researchers estimate that more than 13,000 Americans received a diagnosis of glioblastoma — a type of brain cancer — in 2022. And additional research shows the rate of glioblastoma diagnoses is rising.

There is currently no cure for glioblastoma. Treatment options generally include a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to help slow the growth of tumors.

Now, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital developed a new cell therapy that both helps eliminate current tumors and acts as a cancer vaccine to prevent tumors from reoccurring.

Scientists recently showed promising results testing the new therapy in a mouse model of glioblastoma.

The study was recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Over the past few years, there has been much research conducted on cancer vaccines.

There are two main types of cancer vaccines currently under research:

  • vaccines preventing cancer from ever occurring
  • vaccines to treat current cancer and stop it from coming back.

Similarly to vaccines administered for the flu or COVID-19, cancer vaccines work to train the body’s immune system to identify and destroy potentially harmful cells.

There are currently two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved cancer-prevention vaccines available:

And so far, the FDA has approved three cancer-treating vaccines:

Research is currently underway to develop cancer vaccines for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia.

The new study used a mouse model of glioblastoma to test an experimental cell therapy capable of both eliminating current cancer tumor cells and helping to keep tumors from reforming.

“Our team has pursued a simple idea: to take cancer cells and transform them into cancer killers and vaccines,” says Dr. Khalid Shah, director of the Center for Stem Cell and Translational Immunotherapy (CSTI) and the vice chair of research in the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and faculty at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), and corresponding author of this study.

“Using gene engineering, we are repurposing cancer cells to develop a therapeutic that kills tumor cells and stimulates the immune system to both destroy primary tumors and prevent cancer,” he explains.

According to researchers, this cell therapy uniquely uses live tumor cells, while most cancer vaccines use inactive tumor cells.

“We engineered the live tumor cells to release dual cell-killing and immunomodulatory agents,” Dr. Shah told Medical News Today. “These engineered therapeutic tumor cells (ThTCs) eliminated established glioblastoma tumors in mice by inducing cell killing and activating antitumor immune cell trafficking.”

“This efficacy of ThTCs translated into a survival benefit and long-term immunity in primary, recurrent, and metastatic cancer models in immunocompetent and humanized mice. The incorporation of a double kill-switch in ThTCs ensured the safety of our approach. Therefore arming naturally neoantigen-rich tumor cells with bifunctional therapeutics represents a promising cell-based immunotherapy for solid tumors and establishes a roadmap towards clinical translation.”

– Dr. Khalid Shah

And, he said, unlike inactivated tumor cells, living tumor cells possess a unique potential to home to and target tumors.

“Therefore, engineering tumor cells to express therapeutic agents is a rational approach that takes advantage of their natural source of neoantigens,” Dr. Shah explained. “Our tumor cell-based bifunctional therapeutic strategy by transforming living tumor cells into potent agents that concomitantly drive direct tumor killing and antitumor immunity.”

Dr. Shah stated this therapy could potentially be used to treat other cancers other than glioblastoma. And he said we may see a cancer vaccine like this available for public use in three to five years.

“We are developing [the] next generation of autologous and allogeneic engineered tumor cell-based vaccines and are hopeful that our therapeutic strategy will have the potential to impact patients by preventing tumor progression, recurrence, and metastasis,” he added.

MNT also spoke with Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist and director of neuro-oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and chair of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA, and Regional Medical Director for the Research Clinical Institute of Providence Southern California, about this study.

He said that while immunotherapy is an exciting approach for cancer that has changed the outlook for many cancers such as melanoma, lung cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer, scientists have not made much progress yet in using immunotherapies for brain cancers.

“New approaches are needed and certainly this new study expands our understanding of how to modify and use the native tumor cells to potentially generate a more robust immune response in vivo,” Dr. Kesari explained.

“The live cancer cells mentioned in this article are engineered to directly kill tumor cells and activate the immune system and reduce tumor immunosuppression. So this system allows both activation of [the] immune system to recognize and kill cancer, and at the same time also get rid of the brakes that prevent the activated immune system from doing its job,” he noted.

As for the next steps in this research, Dr. Kesari stated much work needs to be done to translate the preclinical work in this paper into a human proof-of-concept.

“[I] would like to see more animal studies looking at combining with other immunotherapies such as checkpoint inhibitors, and how this could also work in combination with radiation and chemotherapy,” he continued. “There are significant hurdles and costs to be dealt with in making live cell products but can be overcome with time and resources.”