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Dana-Farber Cancer Institute scientists Ellis L. Reinherz, MD, and Robert I. Haddad, MD, have received a grant from Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and the Farrah Fawcett Foundation to lead a research team in developing and testing new vaccines for patients with cancers linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation is supporting the research team by making an additional gift to SU2C.
The three-year, $1.2 million research grant, announced at a press conference today in San Diego at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), SU2C's Scientific Partner, will focus on cancers of the cervix, anus, and head and neck that are driven by HPV. The research represents a new approach to harnessing the immune system as a means of attacking and destroying HPV-associated cancers.
"Globally, there are approximately 700,000 new cancers per year that are due to HPV infection," said Reinherz, chief of the Laboratory of Immunobiology and co-director of the Cancer Vaccine Center at Dana-Farber. "Current vaccines can prevent HPV infection from taking place in unexposed individuals, but they don't offer protection to those who have already been exposed and are at risk of developing a tumor. Our vaccine is uniquely designed to attack the cancers even after tumor formation and, importantly, without causing collateral damage in normal tissues."
Conventional vaccines spur the body to produce antibodies that attack infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria. The approach taken by Reinherz and his colleagues, by contrast, seeks to rouse immune system T cells to attack cancer cells resulting from an HPV infection.
Over the past decade, Dana-Farber researchers including Bruce Reinhold, PhD, and Derin Keskin, PhD, have developed a technology that makes it possible to find specific identification tags, called peptides, on the surface of cancer cells that are different from those on normal cells. The tags incite T cells to attack and kill the cancer once the T cells have been "trained" to do so by vaccination. The researchers identified one tag in particular that is the basis of a new therapeutic vaccine. The Stand Up To Cancer grant will support a clinical trial to test the vaccine in patients with HPV-related cancers.
The researchers plan to use their technology to identify other peptides for vaccines that will target other virus-related cancers. They also hope to identify the T cell receptors that produce the most potent immune system response — work that may one day enable doctors to alter patients' immune cells in the lab for use as a cancer treatment.
"In recent years, we've seen a steady and significant increase in the number of patients with head and neck cancers related to HPV16 [one strain of HPV]," said Haddad, disease center leader for head and neck oncology at Dana-Farber. "These patients are generally young, have young families, and often present with locally advanced disease. Our study will focus on all patients with HPV-driven cancers that have relapsed after their initial therapy. These patients have few therapeutic options today, and we aim to provide a new and targeted approach to improving outcomes for them.
"This is a unique clinical and translational collaboration across many disease centers that treat HPV-related cancers at Dana-Farber," Haddad added. Collaborators include Harvey Mamon, MD, PhD, of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center, for patients with anal cancer; Alexi Wright, MD, MPH, of the Gynecologic Cancer Treatment Center of the Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers, for patients with cervical cancer; and Jochen Lorch, MD, of the Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Center, for patients with head and neck cancers.
Important additional work will be done in collaboration with scientists at Johns Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute.