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Tuesday, 29 August, 2000, 23:09 GMT 00:09 UK
Universal cancer vaccine 'possible'
Scientists predict a universal cancer vaccine is possible
Researchers believe they have taken the first tentative steps towards a universal vaccine for most types of cancer.

A US team has found a protein produced in all major human cancers that can stimulate the development of immune cells to fight the disease.

Experts believe it could form the basis of a vaccine.

The immune cells which are generated kill multiple, unrelated human cancer cells in the test tube and also slow the growth of tumours in living mice.

We're looking for a universal antigen - one antigen to try to treat every cancer patient

Professor Eli Gilboa
Most research into cancer vaccines has looked at proteins specific to individual tumours.

As with vaccines that prevent other diseases, the aim is to use a bit of the protein to make the body recognise it as a target which is then attacked with an army of immune cells.

The new study investigated telomerase, an enzyme that helps prevent natural cell death and is also thought to be involved in cancer.

Professor Eli Gilboa, from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, headed the research in collaboration with a private company, the Geron Corporation.

He said: "The thinking has been that because every cancer is different - melanoma, breast, etc. - that each cancer has its own specific set of antigens that must be used for a vaccine.

"We're looking for a universal antigen - one antigen to try to treat every cancer patient."

To make telomerase a broadly effective anti-cancer vaccine its effect will have to be enhanced and it may need to be combined with other antigens.

Killer cells programmed

The researchers modified cells that activate the immune system so that they carried part of the telomerase protein.

This meant that the immune system killer cells were programmed to attack cells that produced telomerase.

The immune response stimulated by a vaccine containing the modified cells was powerful enough to slow the growth of skin, breast and bladder cancers implanted into mice.

Laboratory experiments showed that the vaccine was capable of stimulating an immune response against human cancer cells.

A universal vaccine for all cancers is appealing, but unlikely

Professor Nick Lemoine
Professor Nick Lemoine, from Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Molecular Oncology Unit, said: "The idea that it might be possible to create a universal vaccine for all cancers is appealing, but unlikely to be achieved because there are so many different types of cancer."

Professor Lemoine warned that telomerase was not only produced by cancer cells - but was also present in similar amounts in cells in bone marrow, reproductive organs and probably other tissues.

"There is a significant danger that triggering the immune system to seek and destroy telomerase-positive cells could do more harm than good."

Professor Lemoine also warned that it would be very labour intensive to arm dendritic cells.

Each patient would require a tailor-made vaccine, he said.

Dr Lesley Walker, of the Cancer Research Campaign, said the research was "exciting".

"As telomerase is switched on in so many cancers I believe this could be the first significant discovery to bring us closer to a universal vaccine for cancer.

"Telomerase is the enzyme we are dubbing the 'New Kid on the Block' because it presents such as enormous opportunities in cancer treatment."

Dr Walker said a vaccine was only one way to exploit its potential.

Cancer Research Campaign scientists in London and Scotland are investigating ways to switch it off or to help target gene therapy to cancer cells.

The research is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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