Graham Booth, a 54-year-old man from the UK who has long battled with head and neck cancer, has now received the first vaccine of what will be a year-long treatment against his recurring cancer. The injections are tailor-designed to match his DNA and it is hoped they will trigger Booth’s immune system to eliminate cancer permanently.
Cancer is a major health problem in the UK, as in most parts of the world. In the UK, a country of approximately 68 million, There are around 375,000 cases every year, which means around 1,000 per day. Over half of the cases are of breast, prostate, lung, and bowel cancers. Meanwhile, on a global scale, 18 million cases of cancer were reported in 2020. It’s the leading cause of death worldwide.
But we’re getting better and better at dealing with it. Now, researchers are increasingly looking at ways to get the patient’s body to fight cancer.
The immune system keeps track of all of the substances in the body. If a new element appears that isn’t recognized, the immune system attacks it. But cancer cells present a big challenge because cancer starts when normal cells become altered and start growing out of control. This makes it difficult for the immune system to identify them, as cancer cells pretend to be normal cells.
Researchers have been increasingly optimistic on the use immunotherapy, a treatment that uses parts of the person’s immune system to fight the disease of cancer. Innovative approaches are being tested and approved, and new ways of working with the immune system are being discovered very fast, including the use of new vaccines.
Cancer treatment vaccines are quite different from the ones that work against viruses. Instead of preventing a disease, they try to get the immune system to attack cancer cells in the body. Some vaccines are made up of cancer cells or pure antigens. Sometimes the immune cells from a patient are used in the lab to create the vaccine. This is exactly the case in the new study.
Trying out a new approach
In the UK, Graham Booth was first diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2011. The disease then returned four times, each involving a difficult treatment, including facial surgery and radiotherapy. Now, Booth is optimistic over the new treatment. He’ll be part of a year-long course of injections at the UK’s Clatterbridge Cancer Center.
“This clinical trial has opened new doorways and gives me a bit of hope that my cancer won’t come back. And this could open doorways for other people. I’m hopefully looking at a brighter future. A bit of hope that it never returns again – which would mean the world to my family and everyone around me,” he said in a statement.
Researchers behind the trial expect that the immunotherapy injections will produce fewer negative side effects compared to traditional cancer therapies, as it’s usually the case with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. This is because healthy tissue and cells won’t be damaged, Christian Ottensmeier, chief investigator for the trial, said in a statement.
For Ottensmeier, the research could be game-changing, especially considering receiving this treatment a few years ago was seen as “science fiction.” He said the treatment will make “a real difference” for the people at Clatterbridge and beyond, highlighting the “meaningful benefits” instead of the “meanigfuly side-effects” of other treatments.
It’s not the first time the idea of using vaccines to treat cancer has been floated. There are already some vaccines used to treat some forms of cancer, but this is a nascent field with plenty of room for progress still left.