A Phase I clinical trial, funded by the American Cancer Society and launched through Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Center for Immunotherapy, is testing the safety of a cancer vaccine in humans. This vaccine, known as SurVaxM, is designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to attack tumor cells. Unlike vaccines that prevent viral illnesses from occurring (e.g., measles, polio), SurVaxM is potentially useful for treating cancer already present in the body.
We are currently investigating the use of SurVaxM against malignant gliomas, a group of malignant brain tumors found mostly in adults. These types of brain cancer occur in about 15,000 Americans each year. Although relatively uncommon, these cancers have a devastating and profound effect on patients. Since treatment has not improved much in the last two decades, we are putting major effort into this vaccine.
SurVaxM attacks cells that express a specific type of protein called survivin. This protein helps keep tumor cells alive. When SurVaxM is administered, these tumor cells are placed in a Catch-22 situation: either the vaccine will stimulate the immune system to kill tumor cells that contain survivin, or the cells will decrease survivin production on their own, which will sensitize those cells to the effects of chemotherapy.
The vaccine is not meant to replace traditional types of cancer treatment, but rather to work in conjunction with other methods to kill persistent tumor cells.
In the future, we plan to study the vaccine in patients with newly-diagnosed tumors. In that case, standard treatment could be administered either in combination with, or in addition to, SurVaxM to see if the vaccine provides added or greater benefit.
The next step in our SurVaxM research is a Phase II clinical trial in which we will measure the effects of the vaccine for one specific type of brain cancer and define the conditions under which it is most effective.