Author: Karly Tinsley
Despite the pandemic, groundbreaking research has not stopped at the University of Arizona. Researchers with the UArizona Health Sciences are working to help treat cancer by using personalized vaccines. It works in combination with the immuno-therapy drug Pembrolizumab.
According to the UArizona, Julie E. Bauman, MD, MPH, deputy director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center and a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, presented preliminary data on the first 10 patients with head and neck cancer, seven of which were treated at Banner – University Medicine, the clinical partner for the UArizona Cancer Center. Five of the 10 patients experienced a clinical response to the personalized cancer vaccine, and two patients had a complete response after the treatment (no detectable disease present).
Molly Cassidy is one of the 10 who went through the trial.
“I was a young healthy woman, so it was a big shock to get diagnosed,” said Cassidy.
She was first diagnosed with oral cancer after complaining of an ear ache. Dentists initially found a tumor in her tongue that was later identified as cancer. She then went through treatment for the tumor, but her cancer came back aggressively.
“I had tumors throughout my neck, in my lungs, I was really really ill,” said Cassidy.
At this time she was seeing Dr. Bauman, who said they both understood her chances of survival were slim at that point.
“I was writing my will,” said Cassidy.
“She asked me to prepare her. It was not viewed as curable and she began to do end of life work,” said Dr. Bauman.
That’s when Dr. Bauman offered her the option of joining her clinical trial. It’s a treatment tailored specifically to the patient. Their cancer cells are used to develop a personalized vaccine that teaches their immune system how to recognize and destroy their cancer.
According to UArizona, to identify the patient-specific mutations of the cancer, mutated DNA from the patient’s tumor is simultaneously sequenced with healthy DNA from the patient’s blood. Computers compare the two DNA samples to identify the unique cancer mutations.
The results are used to develop a set of genetic instructions that are loaded onto a single molecule of messenger RNA (mRNA) and made into a vaccine. These instructions teach immune cells such as T-cells – white blood cells that help protect against infection – how to identify and attack the mutated cancer cells.
“It’s a medicine that is individualized, personalized, and is not one size fits all,” said Dr. Bauman.
Cassidy began the series of 9 shots of her specific vaccine and for the first time things were improving.
“We were cautiously hopeful,” said Dr. Bauman.
It makes her one of two patients in the trial who’ve responded completely, with cancer no longer detectable on a CT scan.
“To see that reversed was striking, stunning, extremely unusual,” said Dr. Bauman.
The trial is now being expanded to more patients due to the early results, as Dr. Bauman is now working with 40 patients with head and neck cancer. Giving those like Cassidy a second chance to picture life after a cancer diagnosis.
“To have such a great response has given me so much of my life back,” said Cassidy.
Her treatment is for two years in the trial, and so far Cassidy remains in complete response.
Dr. Bauman said a personalized vaccine also strives to be less toxic on the body, by not awakening cells that typically attack the organs with regular immunotherapy.