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science saturday Search for therapeutic cancer vaccine makes headway in Switzerland

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The first therapeutic cancer vaccine was developed around 100 years ago but they have been largely ineffective.

(Keystone / Torin Halsey)

Researchers in Switzerland have taken an important step forward in developing an effective therapeutic cancer vaccine by creating a technique that safely activates the immune cells.

In contrast to most vaccines, such as those against measles and tetanus, the aim of a therapeutic cancer vaccine is not to prevent the disease, but to help the body defend itself against a disease that is already present.

While therapeutic cancer vaccines were first developed 100 years ago, they have remained broadly ineffective to date because of two major obstacles. Firstly, since tumor mutations are unique to each patient, cancer cell antigens must be targeted to a very specific location.

Secondly, a safe system is needed to deliver the vaccine to the right location and achieve a strong and specific immune response. Because they are very small, the components of a vaccine tend to disperse or be absorbed in the blood stream before reaching the lymph nodes.

Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanneexternal link (EPFL) have developed a promising technique to overcome these challenges, which was outlined in ACS Central Scienceexternal link earlier this month. Professor Li Tang team at EPFL’s School of Engineering have used a polymerization technique called polycondensation to develop a prototype vaccine that can travel automatically to the desired location and activate immune cells there. 

The new vaccine, named Polycondensate Neoepitope, consists of neoantigens (mutated antigens specific to the tumor) and an adjuvant. When combined within a solvent, the components naturally bind together, forming an entity that is too large to be absorbed by blood vessels and travels naturally to the lymph nodes. The patented technique has so far been successfully tested in mice.

“This new vaccine, combined with a highly advanced analysis of each patient’s neoantigens, should allow cancer patients’ immune systems to be activated in a personalized and safe way,” says Li Tang.

The team is still perfecting the stage at which the tumor-specific antigens are detected. Since neoantigens aren’t present in healthy cells, this accurate identification is key to ensure that healthy tissue isn't damaged.

Li Tang has also co-founded a startup called PepGeneexternal link, with partners that are working on an algorithm for quickly and accurately predicting mutated tumor antigens.

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swissinfo.ch/epfl/jdp

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