mRNA Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine Trial

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused immeasurable suffering and loss of life. One positive outcome has been the rapid discovery and implementation of highly effective vaccines. This work has been fueling the momentum and continued research into similar personalized (mRNA) vaccines, including those for fighting cancer.  

In 2017, Dr. Vinod Balachandran and Dr. Benjamin Greenbaum at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), were working together to study what distinguishes long-term survivors of pancreatic cancer from other patients. They discovered that, up to 12 years after recovering from cancer, pancreatic cancer survivors had specialized immune cells that recognized cancer proteins called neoantigens.  

The researchers thought a vaccine might be able to coax the immune system of pancreatic cancer patients to recognize these neoantigens. The challenge was that not all patients’ tumours have the same neoantigens, making it more challenging to design than vaccines for viruses.  

In December 2019, their team launched a Phase I clinical trial to test mRNA vaccines in pancreatic cancer patients funded through the Stand Up To Cancer Convergence program. This was a full year before mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 became available. 

Phase 1 Pancreatic Vaccine Trial Results

Results from the phase 1 trial, reported May 10 in Nature, suggest that the vaccines cause an effective and lasting immune response. In 8 of 16 patients studied, the vaccines activated powerful immune cells, called T cells, that can recognize the pancreatic cancer specific to a patient. These patients also showed delayed recurrence of their pancreatic cancers, suggesting that the T cells activated by the vaccines may be having the desired effect — to keep pancreatic cancers in check.

    “These exciting results indicate we may be able to use vaccines as a therapy against pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Balachandran says. “The evidence supports our strategy to tailor each vaccine to each patient’s tumor.”

    Dr. Vinod Balachandran, MD

    Surgeon Scientist and Team Co-Leader, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

    Next Steps After Promising Results

    With the successful completion of their first clinical trial, Dr. Balachandran and Dr. Greenbaum are continuing their work to test mRNA vaccines versus the standard of care in pancreatic cancer patients. Pancreatic Cancer Canada, in collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer, will be funding a correlative study that analyzes data from a previous Phase 1 clinical trial.

    The study will leverage their highly specialized SU2C Convergence team comprised of a unique group of top immunologists, computational biologists, physicists, and clinicians from academia and industry with diverse and complementary biological, quantitative, and clinical skills. 

    Pancreatic Cancer Canada is proud to collaborate with Stand Up To Cancer to fund the future of this ground-breaking research.

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