The biotechnology company OncoPep is developing a vaccine against a deadly form of cancer before it becomes evident in patients at risk to contract the disease. The vaccine is designed to prevent the onset of multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that attacks the bone marrow and forms tumors inside the bone. The disease also strikes the immune system, increasing the production of antibodies and leading to pain and excess bleeding.
The vaccine represents a new step in the growing field of immunotherapy. Scientists who research immunotherapy treatments for various cancers develop methods for the body’s own immune system to combat cancer. Immunotherapy research had led to the creation of vaccines that can prevent cancer, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that prevents cervical cancer in women. The field has also produced vaccines by programming antibodies to fight cancer as they would fight infections or other diseases.
The myeloma vaccine fits in an intermediate stage in cancer treatment. The primary treatment group would consist of patients who have a preliminary, pre-cancer stage of the disease, known as smoldering multiple myeloma (SMM). Patients with SMM have abnormal growth rates in the plasma cells that create antibodies, but do not have the tumors and other symptoms that come with the full onset of the disease.
A team of researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston developed a method to administer a vaccine made up of a mix of protein molecules called peptides. The peptides contain protein molecules that myeloma tumors require for sustained life and growth. As the antibodies attack the peptides, they also attack the myeloma cells. The immune system then robs the cancer cells of the proteins they need to survive.
Just as with blood types, doctors have classified patients into different types of immune systems, called “human leukocyte antigen (HLA) types”. Doctors commonly use HLA typing to match donors and recipients in bone marrow transplants. Researchers on the myeloma vaccine will target the treatment at patients with the most common HLA type, known as HLA type A2. Doris Peterkin, CEO of OncoPep, said that the peptides were more likely to trigger the needed antibodies in patience with the most common HLA type, and would be more effective in preventing SMM from becoming full myeloma.
As promising as the preliminary results have been, the road to a vaccine for multiple myeloma is still a long one. Although patients with SMM develop full myeloma in almost 80 percent of all cases, only 10 percent of those cases progress to that stage each year. OncoPep and the research team will still need to collect data for several years on the effectiveness of the vaccine before it will be ready for the wider marketplace.
Dr. Kenneth Anderson, one of the research team leaders who developed the vaccine, said that he hopes it could be used as a preventative measure for patients with SMM, who currently do not have treatment options available until the disease becomes full-blown myeloma. “The idea (behind the vaccine) would be to prevent the development of an active cancer, ” Dr. Anderson said.