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The hope of finding a dedicated vaccine against cancer

Updated on 21.04 | Published on 06.54

Katherine Wu is a professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School.  She has been praised for her work on personalized cancer vaccines.

Personalized vaccines should teach the body how to fight cancer on its own.

With the help of a major Swedish award, world-leading researcher Katherine Wu hopes this method will become a standard.

“We have great faith that we have something important going on,” she says.

It has been a long and arduous battle to come up with effective vaccines that fight cancer itself.

The problem lies in targeting the immune system so that it recognizes small differences in the cancer cell compared to a healthy cell, and attacks the cancer cell, says Urban Lindahl, professor of genetics and secretary of the award committee.

One of the researchers who worked on the issue – Katherine Wu, a professor of medicine at the US Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – is now receiving the Sjöbergstiftelsen Prize, one of Sweden's largest awards for medical research.

Unique tumors

She and her colleagues worked to discover which of thousands of mutations in cancer cells could be seen on the cell surface, and to predict which ones might be suitable to target.

Since all tumors are different, the vaccine must be adapted to each patient. This is done by analyzing the tumor and comparing it to the patient's immune system, then through a vaccine that stimulates T cells in the body to detect and destroy the concerned cells.

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– Here the vaccine comes after you have been infected with the disease, because you have to know the mutations present in the cancerous tumor first, says Lindahl.

One of the advantages of this method is that T cells target a type of protein on the surface of the cancer cell that is only found in cancer cells, which prevents T cells from attacking healthy tissue.

Money for research

The studies conducted so far look promising, but they have been conducted on a small number of patients with lung cancer, melanoma, pancreatic cancer and brain cancer by different research teams around the world, including Katherine Wu's team.

Of the $1 million prize, $900,000 goes to ongoing research.

“I am very hopeful that we will see the impact in large populations and that it will become part of our standard offerings to make a difference for our patients,” Wu says in a video.

She believes the award will make a difference.

– It's a mixture of emotions, everything from speechlessness and disbelief to astonishing gratitude. But also a sense of hope. We have great faith that we have something important going on. We will have the stability in the coming years to take us to the next level.

Corrected: An earlier version of the text made an error about genetics professor Urban Lindahl.