Cancer Vaccine Breakthrough: Houston Researchers Spearhead Global Innovation Efforts

Nov. 30, 2023 - Eden McCleskey

Houston Methodist, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine are leading research into the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines that could revolutionize treatment of the disease within the next decade or two, according to a recent Houston Chronicle article.

The article noted that the three elite Texas Medical Center institutions are serving as a hub for cancer vaccine research, which has tantalized scientists around the world for decades but finally appears closer to realization thanks to recent advances in bioinformatics, immunotherapy and mRNA technology.

"We have a roadmap," Dr. John Cooke, director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, told the Chronicle. "We're going to be able to do this."

Emphasizing Houston's research advantages, Baylor College of Medicine immunologist William Decker added that "if you're a biomedical scientist or physician, being in the Texas Medical Center is like being an actor in New York City and playing on Broadway. You'd rather be second-from-the-left on Broadway than playing the lead in Kalamazoo."

In addition to developing novel vaccine candidates, the three TMC institutions are participating in numerous clinical trials for cancer vaccines.

Houston Methodist's personalized mRNA vaccines

The COVID-19 pandemic brought global attention to vaccines made with messenger RNA, but scientists like Dr. Cooke began working with the technology earlier, the article noted.

Dr. Cooke began looking into cancer vaccines in 2015, after he was awarded a research grant by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Unlike vaccines for chicken pox, mumps or HPV, most of the vaccines currently under development for cancer aren't designed to prevent the disease. Rather, they're intended to shrink tumors, improve immune response and stop the cancer from coming back.

While typical vaccines are developed using modified versions of a virus or bacteria, every individual case of cancer is made up of its own unique combination of genetic mutations. That makes cancer vaccines trickier to design.

"There are a lot of differences between one person's cancer and another person's cancer," Dr. Cooke told the Chronicle.

Dr. Cooke's team uses technology to identify abnormal proteins in cancer cells taken from patients. Such proteins form the basis of the patient's personalized mRNA vaccine.

The basic framework is the same for every mRNA vaccine, noted the article, but scientists can use it to create a different vaccine for each patient.

The Houston Methodist team is still establishing its program and conducting research to determine the effectiveness of this approach. But Dr. Cooke is optimistic that mRNA technology will transform cancer treatment as we know it.

The other TMC institutions' vaccine research

The Chronicle article also detailed MD Anderson's participation in a Phase 3 clinical trial for a promising Moderna and Merck vaccine aimed at improving outcomes among melanoma patients who'd had tumors surgically removed. A Phase 2 study showed the vaccine significantly reduced the risk of recurrence, distant metastasis and death when combined with a checkpoint inhibitor drug (Keytruda), the type of immunotherapy pioneered by MD Anderson Nobel Laureate Jim Allison.

Lastly, the article touted work in Decker's Baylor lab developing cell-based vaccines for angiosarcoma and cancers of the pancreas and brain. The research uses technology to transform cells taken from cancer patients into dendritic cells, a key player in the adaptive immune system. A personalized cancer vaccine created from those cells is injected, not in the patient's arm, the customary location, but near the site of the patient's tumor, where previous research suggested it boosts T cells.

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Cancer Research