Researchers at Loyola University Medical Center are studying a vaccine that, in the future, could be the first to treat advanced malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
“The idea behind the vaccine is to manipulate the immune system to fight cancer, an innovative approach for treating this type of skin cancer,” said Dr. Joseph Clark, co-principal investigator of the study. The vaccine is a combination of the patient’s own tumor and a special type of white blood cells called dendritic cells – highly specialized immune cells that tell other cells what to do. By combining the patient’s tumor with the dendritic cells, researchers at Loyola produce a “designer” vaccine that specifically targets the patient’s cancer. Researchers believe that by including the patient’s tumor cells in the vaccine, the body will be tricked into thinking that the molecule is a foreign substance, and will then learn to attack cancer cells containing this molecule. The development of the vaccine is performed at Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center.
Unlike traditional vaccines, cancer vaccines are not meant to be given to healthy people to prevent cancer. Rather, they are meant to be used in sick patients to strengthen their immune system to better fight the cancer.
Loyola researchers have been studying the vaccine for more than a year. Approximately 20 patients have been evaluated, with 9 patients currently being recruited for the initial phase of the study. According to preliminary results, the vaccine appears to be well tolerated in patients who are currently enrolled in the Loyola study.
“While approval of this vaccine may be a few years away, early data suggest that the unique composition of the vaccine is a promising approach for patients with the deadliest form of skin cancer,” said Clark. Loyola researchers hope to report preliminary results of the initial phase of the study in a year.
Currently, there are no approved vaccines to treat patients with advanced malignant melanoma. These patients often have to undergo chemotherapy, immunotherapy, systemic procedures, a combination of treatments and clinical trials using experimental treatments. “These treatments, however, have a 15 to 20 percent success rate,” said Clark. “Clearly, newer treatments are needed with better success rates, which is part of Loyola’s commitment to study this vaccine,” said Clark.