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Zim cancer patient among thousands to trial personalised vaccines

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BBC


Thousands of NHS cancer patients in England are expected to get access to trials of a new type of treatment using vaccines to fight their disease.

Thirty hospitals so far have signed up to the Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad.

It is designed to match patients with forthcoming trials using mRNA technology, as found in current Covid jabs.

The vaccines are designed to prime the immune system to recognise and destroy any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of the disease recurring.

Elliot Pfebve, 55, is the first patient to be treated with a personalised vaccine against bowel cancer in England.

Elliot, who has already had surgery and chemotherapy, received the jab at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

“I feel excited. I did some research about the treatment trial. If successful then it is a medical breakthrough,” he said.

He added: “It may help thousands, if not millions of people, so they can have hope, and may not experience all I have gone through.”

After Elliot’s initial treatment, tests showed that he still had fragments of cancerous DNA in his bloodstream, which puts patients at increased risk of their cancer coming back.

So he signed up to a trial of an investigational vaccine co-developed by pharma companies BioNTech and Genentech, which uses the same mRNA technology as in the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine.

What is a personalised cancer vaccine?

Vaccines are usually designed to prevent disease.

But cancer vaccines are created as a treatment once someone has been diagnosed.

Just as with conventional vaccines, they prime the immune system to look for an enemy, in this case the patient’s cancer.

A sample of Elliot’s tumour was sent to BioNTech’s labs in Germany where up to 20 mutations specific to his cancer were identified.

Using this information, a vaccine was created using mRNA, which contains instructions to Elliot’s cells to produce mutated rogue proteins unique to his cancer cells.

The vaccine acts like a ‘wanted poster’ which unmasks cancer cells which are adept at hiding in the body, only to resurface later.

The intention is that the vaccine will prime his immune system to seek out and destroy any remaining traces of cancer, and so improve the chances of him being cancer free in years to come.

Dr Victoria Kunene
Dr Victoria Kunene hopes the vaccine will reduce the risk of cancer recurrence

Dr Victoria Kunene, trial principal investigator from Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, told the BBC: “I think this is a new era. The science behind this makes sense.

“My hope is this will become the standard of care. It makes sense that we can have something that can help patients reduce their risk of cancer recurrence.”

But it is still early days, and while there is great optimism about the potential for mRNA cancer treatment vaccines, they remain in the experimental stage and are only available as part of clinical trials.

More than 200 patients in the UK, USA, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Sweden will be recruited to the trial and will receive up to 15 doses of the personalised vaccine.

The study is not due to be completed until 2027.

One hope is that the vaccines will produce fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy.

Elliot said that apart from a mild fever following the injection, he had no other issues with the vaccine.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, said: “Seeing Elliot receive his first treatment as part of the Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad is a landmark moment for patients and the health service as we seek to develop better and more effective ways to stop this disease.

Prof Peter Johnson, NHS national clinical director for cancer at the NHS, said: “We know that even after a successful operation, cancers can sometimes return because a few cancer cells are left in the body, but using a vaccine to target those remaining cells may be a way to stop this happening.”

Last month, a patient in London received a personalised mRNA vaccine against melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

That jab was co-developed by Moderna and MSD, and uses the same technology as in Moderna’s Covid jabs.

Trials of mRNA vaccines have begun or are being planned against a range of tumour types including lung, head and neck, and bladder cancer.

What are some of the symptoms of bowel cancer?

  • Changes in your poo, such as having softer poo, diarrhoea or constipation that is not usual for you
  • Needing to poo more or less often than usual for you
  • Blood in your poo, which may look red or black
  • Bleeding from your bottom
  • Often feeling like you need to poo, even if you’ve just been to the toilet
  • Tummy pain
  • A lump in your tummy
  • Bloating
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Feeling very tired for no reason

While some of these symptoms are very common and can be caused by other conditions, it is important to get checked by a GP.