What are cancer vaccines used for? How do these vaccines work? Will they become the norm for treating cancer? Prof. Lana Kandalaft gives us some answers.
When it’s working as it should, our immune system is incredible. It constantly surveys the body to defend it from illness or infection. What happens, for instance, when a potentially cancerous mutation occurs in our cells? Our dendritic cells, which I like to think of as the spies of our immune system, identify it as a threat. They prime our T cells – the soldiers – to attack and destroy cancerous cells. This is what we call the ‘cancer immunity cycle’. Mutations are perfectly normal and occur on a daily basis in our bodies. When all goes well, they are promptly detected and eradicated.
But sometimes, a mutation goes undetected and cancer can develop. As well as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, another pillar of cancer treatment is immunotherapy, which helps the immune system recognise and fight cancer cells. Our job as immunotherapists is to boost this immunity cycle when it’s not working properly.
My work at the Center of Experimental Therapeutics at the Department of oncology UNIL-CHUV involves developing vaccines to treat different types of cancer. Currently, cancer vaccines are therapeutic – their aim is to cure disease rather than prevent it – and this is the focus of our work.
My team and I use a cellular approach to vaccination: instead of relying on the dendritic cells to do their job and prime T cells to attack cancer cells, we vaccinate the patient with cells that recognise the tumour. This process mimics what happens in the body and aims to boost the immunity cycle. We recently launched trials for vaccines to treat lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer.