A research group reports that they started a Phase I clinical trial of an implantable vaccine to treat melanoma. The vaccine is novel because it uses a small disk-like sponge about the size of a fingernail that is made from FDA-approved polymers. Current therapeutic cancer vaccines require doctors to first remove the patient’s immune cells from the body, reprogram them, and then reintroduce them back into the body, a more time-consuming and complex process.

The work represents a collaborative effort being pursued at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. It was led by Wyss Institute core faculty member David J. Mooney, Ph.D., who is also the Robert P. Pinkas Family professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Wyss Institute associate faculty member Glenn Dranoff, M.D., who is co-leader of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Cancer Vaccine Center.

The new approach was first reported to eliminate tumors in mice four years ago. The sponge, which is implanted under the skin, is designed to recruit and reprogram a patient’s own immune cells on site, instructing them to travel through the body, home in on cancer cells, and then kill them.

“We addressed the hypothesis that coordinated regulation of a DC [dendritic cell] network, and plasmacytoid DCs (pDCs) and CD8+ DCs in particular, could enhance host immunity in mice,” wrote the researchers in an article (“In Situ Regulation of DC Subsets and T Cells Mediates Tumor Regression in Mice”) in Science Translational Medicine (November 25, 2009). “We used functionalized biomaterials incorporating various combinations of an inflammatory cytokine, immune danger signal, and tumor lysates to control the activation and localization of host DC populations in situ.”

In that 2009 study, 50 percent of mice treated with two doses of the vaccine—mice that would have otherwise died from melanoma within about 25 days—showed complete tumor regression. The technology was initially designed to target cancerous melanoma in skin, but the scientists believe it might have application to other cancers and inflammatory diseases.

“It is rare to get a new technology tested in the laboratory and moved into human clinical trials so quickly,” said Dr. Dranoff. “We’re beyond thrilled with the momentum, and excited about its potential.”

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