Two major research organizations in the Phoenix area have announced they will collaborate on an ambitious goal: Creating a vaccine to prevent the development of cancer. Researchers at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe and Mayo Clinic will use the latest developments in laboratory and clinical sciences to reach their goal — finding components in cancer that could be used to vaccinate against the occurrence of the disease.
There is even the hope that some of these unique components could be shared among different types of cancer and lead to broad protection from multiple tumors.
“This is a bold, unconventional approach backed by promising science,” said Michael Tracy, deputy director of the Biodesign Institute.
Research led by Stephen Albert Johnston, who directs the institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine, suggests there may be common themes in the protein signatures that tumors produce, Tracy explained.
At the root of most cancers is a single cell going awry and dividing uncontrollably, producing a tumor. As cells become cancerous, they produce proteins that are unfamiliar to the human immune system, which should prompt a protective response from the body. Yet somehow, these stealth proteins evade the body’s defenses and allow the cells to grow into a tumor.
In results from animal studies, pre-vaccination with these foreign proteins creates an immune response that prevents the tumor from forming. Unfortunately, each tumor’s protein signature can be slightly different. In other words, even if two individuals have the same type of cancer, their tumors may be slightly different, and therefore the concept of a widespread preventative vaccine that would be effective in large numbers of people has been a daunting task. However, if common themes could be identified, it could provide a means for solving this problem.
“This idea of identifying signatures unique to cancer suggests the possibility of preventive vaccines,” said Laurence Miller, M.D., director of research and deputy director of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. “This approach could avoid many of the problems associated with trying to treat an established tumor.” Miller noted that the recent success of the human papilloma virus vaccine to prevent cervical cancer supports this concept.
“Clearly, our arsenal of therapeutics and knowledge of cancer has significantly advanced since the ‘war on cancer’ was declared a generation ago, but there are still entirely too many who will succumb to the disease,” said George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute. “Now, with powerful new tools in understanding the genetic circuitry of cancer, ASU and Mayo Clinic are developing a broad portfolio of risk-taking and highly creative approaches with a goal of alleviating the suffering caused by cancer.”
This project is the first initiative undertaken under an umbrella partnership called the Mayo Clinic/ASU Center for Cancer-related Convergence, Cooperation and Collaboration (MAC5).
Mayo Clinic and ASU have invested seed funds to launch this project and obtain the initial supportive data. Space has been allocated in a new research facility on the Scottsdale campus of Mayo Clinic, and additional faculty and clinicians are being hired to support this phase of the project.
“The effort may be too high-risk and technology-focused to be supported by traditional government funding sources, so we hope that private sources will join the effort to ensure the potential is fully explored,” said Johnston. “We anticipate that within three years we will know if this is a viable approach. Being able to bring the expertise of ASU and Mayo Clinic together on such an exciting and potentially beneficial effort significantly enhances our potential for success,” he said.