Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine: 50% Success in Phase 1 Trials

  • A new mRNA-based vaccine for pancreatic cancer has shown positive results
  • The vaccine is still in its 1st phase
  • 50% of the test participants showed increased immune strength against PDAC

Pancreatic Cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, with a 88% fatality rate. Even when the tumor is removed via surgery, 90% of patients are reported to have been affected again with it within 7-9 months. Chemotherapy, Radiation, or Immunotherapy, none of these seem to work against pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is set to be the second leading cause of death by cancer, behind lung cancer.

In a recent study published on Wednesday, a team of US researchers developed a new mRNA vaccine that can help a patient fight off a particular form of pancreatic cancer- pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). This vaccine, tested in its first phase in conjunction with chemotherapy and immunotherapy, provided substantially positive results that remained unaffected even after 18 months.

The vaccine development began in 2017 when a study looked into how 12% of pancreatic cancer survived. Vinod Balachandran of the team noted a “spontaneous” increase in immune strength against the tumor. T-cells, a type of white blood cell that acts as the basic immune system of the body, was the focus of this study, which noted that the survivors seem to carry these T-cells even a decade after fighting off their cancer.

It was theorized that the T-cells were able to recognize the tumors via proteins that are released due to genetic errors (the root cause of PDAC). So if our immune system was able to detect these proteins on a larger scale, we could better fight off PDAC. However, these proteins are highly specific and change from person to person, so the vaccine has to be custom-made.

mRNA was chosen as the method of creation for this vaccine even before its mainstream debut during the COVID-19 pandemic. mRNA is a “rapidly scalable” material that can generate a very strong response from the immune system.

Phase 1 tested the vaccine on 16 PDAC patients who had been through surgery and were on chemotherapy. 50% of test participants showed a robust response despite the chemotherapy. The T-cells remained at their elevated level even 18 months after administration of the vaccine. The vaccine showed no signs of negative side effects either.

The vaccine is yet to go through all the hurdles it is required to pass before it is declared safe and effective. A phase 2 trial is supposed to begin very soon. With the development of this vaccine, pancreatic cancer might no longer be the same death sentence that it used to be. 

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