05 Jan 2010, PR 03/10
Scientists at King’s have developed a vaccine treatment for Leukaemia that can be used to stop the disease returning after chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant. The vaccine is due to be tested on patients for the first time. Eventually it is hoped the drug, which activates the body's own immune system against the leukaemia, could be used to treat other types of cancers.
Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow affects around 7,200 patients a year. Around 4,300 die from the disease annually. Treatment comes in two stages - chemotherapy to rid the body of the disease, then to prevent it returning either further chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant. Latest survival rates show that more than half the people with leukaemia die within five years of diagnosis.
The first patients to be treated as part of the clinical trial at King’s College Hospital, have the form of the disease known as Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), the most common form in adults. Even with aggressive treatment half would usually find the disease returns. In the initial stages of the trial patients will be enrolled in the trial if they have had chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. If early trials are successful the vaccine may be tested in patients who cannot have a bone marrow transplant because they are unsuitable or a match cannot be found.
The study, led by Professors Ghulam Mufti and Farzin Farzaneh and Dr Nicola Hardwick, has involved intricate work to develop a man-made virus, which carries the two genes into the immune system.
Farzin Farzaneh, Professor of Molecular Medicine, in the Department of Haemato-oncology at the College, said if the trials are successful then the vaccine could be "rolled out" to treat other leukaemias and cancers. ‘It is the same concept as normal vaccines. The immune system is made to see something as foreign and can then destroy it itself. This has the chance to be curative.’
The idea behind cancer 'vaccines’ is not necessarily to prevent the disease. Instead, once a patient has been diagnosed, the 'vaccine' programmes the immune system to hunt down cancer cells and destroy them. The vaccine then prompts the immune system to recognise leukaemia cells if they return which prevents a relapse of the disease. The vaccine is created by removing cells from the patient's blood and manipulating them in the laboratory.
The cells are given two genes which act as flags to help identify the leukaemia. It effectively focuses and boosts the immune system's ability to seek out and destroy cancer cells. The research is due to be published in the Journal of Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy shortly.
The study follows successful experiments on experimental tumour models showing that injection with the gene modified tumour cells results in the induction of immune mediated tumour rejection.
The work, which has taken 20 years to develop, has more recently been funded by the Department of Health and various charities including: Cancer Research UK, the Leukaemia Research Fund (LRF) and the Elimination of Leukaemia Fund (ELF).
The research was carried out at King's College London's Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC), which is one of 17 new centres across the country launched to develop basic science into treatments for patients as quickly as possible.
King’s Health Partners members King’s College London and King’s College Hospital are jointly sponsoring this groundbreaking research.