Dr. Claude Perreault and his team of researchers at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, Universite de Montreal’s cancer research institute, have shown how a vaccine could work to fight several types of cancers, including leukemia.
The goal of cancer vaccine therapy is to boost the immune system so that it recognizes cancer cells as something foreign, just as it would with other infectious microorganisms, and eliminate them. The idea is that the vaccine would destroy any cancer cells still in the body that remain after other treatments have ended, stop a tumor from growing or spreading, and prevent the cancer from coming back.
Researchers have been studying the idea of a cancer vaccine for over 50 years, but until recently they were never able to prove exactly how such a vaccine would work. Dr. Perreault’s team has not only demonstrated that it can work but also that it could become an extremely effective, and non-invasive cancer-fighting tool.
Dr. Perreault is currently funded by an Operating Grant from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada.
Dr. Perreault and his team study T lymphocytes, an immune cell capable of recognizing and attacking cancer cells by the presence of foreign molecules, called antigens, on the surface of cells. However, because cancer cells arise from normal cells, the antigens on the cell surface are mostly normal, which means that abnormal ones may be missed. As such, the search for a vaccine has focused on identifying antigens specific to cancer cells so that the immune system will attack the cancer cells more effectively.
Previously, various research teams have attempted to identify targets in the portion of our DNA known to code antigens and proteins but they have not been successful. This portion of DNA, however, makes up only 2 per cent of the DNA in our cells. Dr. Perreault focused his search on the other 98 per cent, called non-coding DNA, and was able to identify numerous antigens specific to cancer cells, including leukemia.
This allowed the team to develop a vaccine based on leukemia cells containing some of the identified antigens. These results are extremely promising and open up the possibility for the development of vaccines to treat leukemia. Dr. Perreault believes that clinical trials with humans could start within the next two to three years.
Developing therapeutic cancer vaccines targeting tumour-specific antigens could save lives and treat disease in a way that is safer for patients.