Author: Jonathan Humphries, Public Interest Reporter

The first human trials for a groundbreaking ‘vaccine for cancer’ have begun in Liverpool with the first patients recruited.

A team of cancer researchers from Liverpool Head & Neck Centre, The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, Liverpool University Hospitals and the University of Liverpool are trialling new vaccines that aim to harness a patients own immune system to fight cancer.

Head and neck cancers, which include mouth, throat, tongue and sinus cancers, are particularly difficult to treat and carry a high risk of returning even after successful treatment.

The first UK patient has now been recruited in Liverpool and vaccine production has begun at the Transgene laboratory in France.

More patients will be recruited in coming months, with the aim of administering the first vaccine in a few months, when the usual treatment has been completed.

The Transgene trial will involve around 30 people who have just completed treatment for advanced, but still operable, HPV-negative (not linked to human papilloma virus) squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN).

How does the vaccine work?

Head and neck cancer can involve many different kinds of gene mutations resulting in the production of new proteins, called ‘neoantigens’, that vary widely between patients.

The Transgene trial aims to produce individualised ‘therapeutic vaccines’, designed to trigger an immune response to the new antigen produced by a particular gene mutation linked to each patient’s own head and neck cancer.

Chief Investigator for the UK trial, Professor Christian Ottensmeier, a Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre and Professor of Immuno-Oncology at the University of Liverpool, explained the process.

He said: “Cancer develops because of faulty cells.

“Cells in the body are constantly reproducing and sometimes a bit of the genetic code in a cell doesn’t get copied correctly. The new cells develop with faulty genetic code.

“Most of the time, this doesn’t matter because the faulty code doesn’t do anything important.

“Occasionally, however, the faulty code is important. If the body doesn’t spot the error, these faulty cells can continue to reproduce and the person develops cancer.

“The immune system is very good at recognising anything unusual such as viruses and bacteria, and the T-cells trigger antibodies to attack and destroy them.

“Cancer cells can be very good at hiding from the immune system because, apart from the faulty bit of genetic code, they are very similar to healthy cells.

“We are creating a cancer vaccine for each patient by turning the faulty genetic code into an Achilles heel for treatment.

“We already know that the vaccine technology is very effective at waking up the immune system. We hope this means that if the patient develops cells with the same faulty code in the future, their immune system will recognise them straight away and develop antibodies to destroy them before they develop into cancer.”