Biodesign Institute researcher Stephen Albert Johnston, Ph.D., has received a five-year, $7.5 million grant to develop a preventive vaccine against breast cancer, the second leading cause of death in women.
Johnston, the director of the institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine, is one of only two recipients in the nation bestowed with the Department of Defense’s Innovator Award, funded through its Breast Cancer Research Program. The award ramps up a major cancer research collaborative initiative with Mayo Clinic.
The Department of Defense, using appropriations from a congressionally directed medical research program, has sought to eradicate breast cancer by funding innovative, high-impact research through a partnership of scientists and consumers.
“Breast cancer’s course is often long and devastating and, despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, one in five women still succumb to the disease,” said Johnston. “It’s time to fundamentally rethink how we approach this problem. Our goal, based on some promising preliminary results, is to see if we can make a vaccine that would be given to all adult women to prevent the occurrence of breast cancer.”
Johnston notes that the most successful medical intervention in history has been the development of vaccines against infectious disease. “Developing a cancer vaccine would be the perfect solution, not only in eliminating cancer mortality, but also potentially some of the costs of diagnosis and treatment.”
Johnston will lead a highly interdisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians, which involves renowned collaborators from other institutions including: Laurence Miller, M.D., Mayo Clinic, director for research, and Richard Smith, Ph.D., chief scientist at Pacific Northwest National Labs.
The research team, utilizing the latest advances in genomics, proteomics and immunology, wants to find a number of common signatures that occur across a wide spectrum of breast tumors.
“It’s been well-established that cancers create foreign proteins that the immune system has not seen before,” said Johnston. “If we could pre-immunize an individual with a collection of proteins that effectively represent any foreign protein that a breast cancer tumor would produce, the immune system would arm itself against breast cancer,” said Johnston. “And, if the platform technology proves successful, it could be applied to other cancers.”
“This has truly been a collaborative effort, with significant contributions from both organizations,” according to Miller. “I am thrilled that this is going forward, and am also pleased to see this important project launching our joint efforts in the Mayo Clinic/ASU Center for Cancer-related Convergence, Cooperation and Collaboration (MAC5).”
The research work will be performed at the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine and Mayo Clinic’s new Collaborative Research Building. This project is the first major initiative undertaken under the MAC5 umbrella partnership. Mayo Clinic and ASU have invested seed funds to launch this project and obtain the initial supportive data. Space has been allocated at the new research facility on the Scottsdale campus of Mayo Clinic, and additional faculty and clinicians are being hired to support the project.
To find common elements in breast cancer tumors, the research team will use patient and normal samples from extensive tissue banks at the Mayo Clinic. The team will develop new techniques to identify small protein fragments, or peptides, found in breast cancer cell lines and primary tumors. “The key is that these peptides have to trigger an immune response against breast tumors but not in normal cells,” said Johnston.
Johnston knows demonstrating their approach will be a significant challenge. But he has been encouraged by recent mouse studies in his lab, which have identified peptides that have shown protection against breast cancer.
“We believe the technology and knowledge base now exists to determine whether or not this idea is feasible,” said Johnston. “If we are successful in our approach, we hope to bring a vaccine candidate to clinical trials by the end of the grant period.”