New cancer vaccine makes cancer cells kill their own family

Only cancer can kill cancer.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
NK Cell (Natural Killer Cell) Attacking a Cancer Cell
NK Cell (Natural Killer Cell) Attacking a Cancer Cell


Imagine experiencing multiple painful headaches every single day. Sometimes those headaches even feel like somebody is stabbing a pin or a knife inside your head, and you can’t do anything about it. How would you feel?

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of pain many brain cancer patients have to deal with every day. There are millions of such patients across the globe, and all of them are waiting for a vaccine that could free them from this suffering and help them restore their health. This is why scientists in many parts of the world are constantly trying to develop an effective brain cancer vaccine.

Today, we’ll reveal the details of a recently published research work highlighting a dual-action brain cancer vaccine. It was developed by a team of scientists at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). 

What’s exciting is that the team successfully tested their vaccine on a mouse model having glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive brain cancers. The results of this experiment were promising.

Using cancer cells as “cancer-killers”

New cancer vaccine makes cancer cells kill their own family
The dual-action brain cancer vaccine causing tumor death.

Although cancer vaccines are an active area of research, the approach proposed in the current study is quite distinct. Instead of using inactivated tumor cells, The scientists at BWH gene-edited and engineered (repurposed) living tumor cells. 

Typically, therapeutic tumor cells are first inactivated by lysis or irradiation before being re-administered into a subject’s body to enhance immunogenicity (immunity resulting due to the action of a foreign substance). The researchers suggest that during clinical trials, this therapeutic approach has only delivered limited or no health benefits against brain cancer. 

Therefore, they decided to go with a different dual-action approach. This distinct therapeutic method involved transforming living tumor cells into agents that could trigger tumor-killing actions and anti-cancer immunity inside a patient’s body. 

While explaining this in detail, study author and Vice Chair of Research at BWH, Khalid Shah, told IE, “Living tumor cells possess an unusual feature to home to their fellow tumor cells. Taking advantage of this unique property, we engineered living tumor cells using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 and subsequently engineered them to release tumor cell killing and immunomodulatory agents to prime the immune system for a long-term anti-tumor response.”  

This dual-action cell therapy was tested in mouse models with brain tumors. Established tumors were resected, and therapeutic tumor cells (ThTC) were encapsulated in a biocompatible gel and placed in the tumor cavity. Professor Shah said, “the encapsulated ThTC were safe, and efficacious in this tumor model.”

Basically, this therapeutic approach was successful at both — destroying existing tumors and preventing the further spread of cancer in the mouse model. 

Is this brain cancer vaccine ready for humans? 

The vaccine has only been tested on mouse models, and although the results seem promising, it is not yet ready for humans. For instance, the researchers suggest that the knowledge of tumor microenvironments is crucial for the success of this therapy in humans. However, the current study does not explain much about recapitulating tumor microenvironments. 

Therefore, follow-up research work is required to address these and many other factors related to the dual-action vaccine. Professor Shah and his team are currently working on such limitations and developing the next generation of autologous and allogeneic-engineered tumor cell-based vaccines

They are hopeful that their therapeutic strategy will have the potential to prevent tumor progression, recurrence, and metastasis in patients with brain cancer.

For more information related to brain cancer diagnosis, treatment, and help, you can also check out the following resources from the CancerCare, American Brain Tumor Association, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and the National Cancer Institute.  

The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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