One step nearer to a skin cancer vaccine?

Dr Conal Perrett, Consultant Dermatologist The Devonshire Clinic, comments on an exciting new study showing that a skin cancer vaccine can help treat patients with advanced melanoma skin cancer.

The study is published in a leading journal but the full development of a skin cancer vaccine could still be several years away.

What is a cancer vaccine?

When researchers talk about cancer vaccines, they don’t mean a childhood injection that protects you from cancer in later life. It has long been thought that if we knew more about cancer antigens – the little flag-like molecules that stick out all over the surface of a cancer cell – it might be possible to develop a vaccine against them.

The idea of a cancer vaccine is that it is tailored to each individual person with cancer. Their cancer cells are studied, the flag-like antigens are identified, and a vaccine is made to give to that person by injection. As their body responds by producing an immune response to the components of the vaccine, this enables the body to destroy the cancer cells more easily.

No cancer vaccine has yet been developed but there has been some exciting news recently that suggests we are getting close. Researchers in the USA have been busy analysing the cancer antigens on malignant melanomas, skin cancers that are extremely dangerous and aggressive.

Unlike other skin cancers, melanomas are more likely to spread within the skin and often to other parts of the body. They are more difficult to treat than other types and have the highest fatality rate.

Melanomas are aggressive because their DNA has become completely messed up. Instead of having just a few mutations in their DNA, they have hundreds or even thousands. This means that the flag-like antigens they show on the surface are different in every patient with melanoma.

Trialling a potential vaccine against melanoma skin cancer

The respected journal Science has just published a study on just three patients who were given a personalised cancer vaccine after the cancer antigens on their melanomas were studied. Each vaccine for each person was different and took 3 months to prepare. But when it was given to the patients, they all did much better. The vaccine stimulated their immune systems to attack the cancer cells within their melanoma.

  • One patient no longer shows any sign of cancer.
  • The second patient still has melanoma but the tumours are not developing or growing.
  • The third patient had a large tumour, which shrank significantly after the vaccine was given. It is now small and stable and shows no signs of re-growing.

Researchers are cautious but optimistic

This type of clinical trial is often called a proof of concept study. It demonstrates that the principle of a cancer vaccine is a valid one, even if the techniques and details need much more study.

In addition to treating melanoma skin cancers, cancer vaccines could also be developed against other types of cancer that show a huge number of genetic mutations – such as aggressive lung cancers and breast cancers that carry the BRCA1 mutation.

This type of cancer vaccine is going to take a lot more time to develop and it is hoped that the time to generate the vaccine for each patient will reduce from three months.

“This is very good news,” comments Dr Conal Perrett, Consultant Dermatologist The Devonshire Clinic and a leading UK expert in skin cancer. ‘Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer and kills over 2000 people every year in the UK. It is the fifth most common cancer and accounts for one in every 100 deaths that occur due to any type of cancer.”

“This preliminary study highlights the potential of harnessing the immune response to target skin cancer. Further studies are now required to take forward this concept of personalised vaccines for skin cancer.”

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about the private treatments available for skin cancer, or the would like skin cancer screening, please contact us to arrange an appointment with Dr Conal Perrett or one of his team of dermatologists at The Devonshire Clinic

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