Advancing Vaccines for Cancer

Cancer was responsible for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020. Treatments for cancer, which represents a group of complex and diverse diseases, have been in development for more than a century, but most still lack safe and effective therapeutic options. The current standards of care – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and precision approaches such as immune checkpoint inhibitors – each come with serious side effects and the threat of recurrence.

Cancer vaccines have been in development for decades and have begun to achieve important milestones. Therapeutic vaccines work by boosting the body’s immune system to reduce the likelihood of cancer recurrence, destroying cells remaining in the body, and halting tumor growth, while others work as preventatives, including Merck’s Gardasil 9, which received FDA approval in 2006 and works to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that causes cervical cancer.

Vaccines as a treatment for cancer emerged as a prominent theme this month at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting. Companies met to describe promising therapeutics that are in development for advanced liver cancer, head and neck cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, glioblastoma, and others.

Important recent progress has been made in cancer vaccines by:

  • BioNTech (BNTX) and Genentech, who are collaborating to develop a vaccine for pancreatic cancer and released positive three-year follow up data last week, demonstrating that 6 of 8 patients with an immune response remained disease free during the three-year follow-up period, while 7 of the 8 patients without an immune response to the treatment during the trial showed tumor recurrence.
  • Diakonos Oncology, which has demonstrated substantially increased survival in glioblastoma patients treated with its dendritic cell vaccine. The company reported that 88% of patients remained alive a year after treatment, compared to a historical 53% of those on standard regimens.
  • PDC*line Pharma which presented positive initial results from its Phase 1/2 clinical trial investigating a vaccine for lung cancer in combination with Keytruda at AACR 2024. The vaccine, PDC*lung01, activated an immune response in 68.4% of non-small cell lung cancer patients. The company expects to report final results from the trial in the third quarter of 2024, PDC*line.
  • Anixa Biosciences (ANIX), which is developing a vaccine for Triple Negative breast cancer, and presented positive Phase 1 data in December 2023. The company announced in January that it had been granted a Japanese patent for its novel ovarian cancer vaccine technology, and
  • Merck ($MRK) and Moderna ($MRNA), which have partnered to develop a melanoma vaccine that has shown promise in treating patients in combination with Keytruda. The companies announced in December 2023 that the three-year follow up of patients demonstrated that mRNA-4157 in combination with keytruda reduced the risk of recurrence or death by 49% and the risk of distant metastasis or death by 62% compared to KEYTRUDA alone in stage III/IV melanoma patients.

Vaccines are our best defense against infectious disease and in the future they may be used to prevent cancers in high risk populations. Until then, they are slowing disease progression and providing a source of hope for patients around the world.

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About the Author

Advancing Vaccines for Cancer

Catie Corcoran

Biotech Editor