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Ovarian Cancer

Personalized Ovarian Cancer Vaccines

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have found a new way to identify protein mutations in cancer cells. The novel method is being used to develop personalized vaccines to treat patients with ovarian cancer.

A release from the university quotes Dr. Pramod Srivastava, director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health and one of the principal investigators on the study, as saying, “This has the potential to dramatically change how we treat cancer. This research will serve as the basis for the first ever genomics-driven personalized medicine clinical trial in immunotherapy of ovarian cancer, and will begin at UConn Health this fall.”

UConn bioinformatics engineer Ion Mandoiu, associate professor of computer science and engineering, collaborated as the other principal investigator for the study, which has been in development for the past four years. The results appear online in the 22 September issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Dr. Angela Kueck, a gynecological oncologist at UConn Health, will run the initial clinical study, once it is approved by the FDA. The research team will sequence DNA from the tumors of 15 to 20 women with ovarian cancer, and use that information to make a personalized vaccine for each woman.

The researchers focused their clinical trial on patients with ovarian cancer because the disease usually responds well to surgery and chemotherapy in the short term, but often returns lethally within a year or two. That gives researchers the perfect window to prepare and administer the new therapeutic vaccines, and also means they may be able to tell within two years or so whether the vaccine made a difference. If the personalized vaccines prove to be safe and feasible, they’ll design a Phase II trial to test its clinical effectiveness by determining whether they prolong patients’ lives.

Identifying tiny differences
In order for the immune system to attack cancers, it first has to recognize them. Every cell in the body has a sequence of proteins on its exterior that acts like an ID card or secret handshake, confirming that it’s one of the good guys. These protein sequences, called epitopes, are what the immune system ‘sees’ when it looks at a cell. Cancerous cells have epitopes, too. Since cancer cells originate from the body itself, their epitopes are very similar to those of healthy cells, and the immune system doesn’t recognize them as bad actors that must be destroyed.

But just as even the best spy occasionally slips up on the details, cancer cell epitopes have tiny differences or mistakes that could give them away, if only the immune system knew what to look for.