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Winning projects

Professor Theodore Hupp and Professor Robin Fahraeus

Project:

International Centre for Cancer Vaccine Science

Authors:

professor Theodore Hupp and professor Robin Fahraeus

Financial support:

41 109 030,00 PLN

Project location:

The University of Gdańsk

Foreign strategic partner:

The University of Edinburgh

Field of research:

Molecular genetics, immunology, clinical biochemistry

Project aim:

Comprehensive research into immunotherapies that could lead to the creation of personalized therapeutic cancer vaccines, followed by their commercialization and implementation into clinical practice.

International Centre for Cancer Vaccine Science

Although still in its infancy, immunotherapy in cancer treatment has already been hailed as the next revolution in medicine. It seems to be for oncology what antibiotics and preventive vaccination have been for the treatment of infectious diseases. Thanks to those scientific advances, we saw the back of many, previously lethal, diseases. Will the same happen to cancer thanks to immunotherapy and to the widespread use of personalized therapeutic cancer vaccines?

Large-scale comprehensive research into such immunotherapies, followed by their commercialization and implementation into clinical practice, will be the purpose of a new scientific facility which is currently being built in Gdańsk – the International Centre for Cancer Vaccine Science. The centre has been established by experienced researchers: Theodore Hupp from the UK and Robin Fahraeus from France – selected in the second competition under the International Research Agendas (MAB) programme implemented by the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP), using funds from the Smart Growth Operational Program. PLN 41 million in funding for the project has been secured. The new facility will be based at the University of Gdańsk and will be created in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh.

The fundamental idea behind oncological immunotherapy is straightforward – the goal is to kick-start cancer patients’ immune system to fight the neoplasm. Cancer cells are generated in the human body every single day. The transformation of a healthy cell into a cancer cell is triggered by DNA defects. Mutations are enabled by inflammation, infection, solar irradiance, tobacco smoke, environmental pollution or free radicals, which find their way into the body along with food. The immune system is generally able to quickly recognize a mutated cell and to eliminate it. However, sometimes the immune system lets certain hazardous agents slip by, permitting the rogue cell to proliferate. The growing cancer structure applies a range of strategies to stay off the immune system’s radar. Cancer cells escaping the immune supervision are one of the most important mechanisms which enable cancer to progress. Restoring control offers a great opportunity to defeat cancer. Hence, the prestigious Science journal, as well as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recognized cancer immunotherapies as the greatest breakthrough in recent years, not only in medicine, but also in science as a whole. ASCO experts also believe that immunotherapy is set to replace other cancer therapies quite soon and that one in every two cancer patients will undergo immunotherapy as soon as in 2020. It seems that immunotherapies might make it possible to fully cure even advanced-stage cancers, as well as metastasized and chemotherapy-resistant neoplasms.

Cancer immunotherapy can currently be divided into specific and non-specific therapies. Non-specific therapies activate the immune system to fight a particular type of cancer, working in an identical way for all patients suffering from the same type of cancer. This is the operating principle of immune checkpoint inhibitors (such as ipilimumab, pembrolizumab and nivolumab), which have already been shown to be effective in the treatment of melanoma and lung cancer. A number of trials are underway to evaluate the efficacy of the drugs in the treatment of kidney, colon, prostate, breast, head and neck cancers, as well as other tumours.

Specific immunotherapy, on the other hand, rallies the immune system to fight a particular cancer detected in a specific patient. The most dynamically developing area of specific immunotherapy are customized therapeutic cancer vaccines (contrary to infectious disease immunization, these are not preventive vaccines inhibiting the development of a disease, but are rather used to actively treat existing patients). Each vaccine is prepared individually for a concrete patient on the basis of specific neo-antigens, i.e. proteins, which occur only and exclusively in that particular growing tumour, depending on a unique combination of genetic mutations carried by the cancer cells present in a specific patient. Latest advances in genetics and molecular biology (such as sequencing) are used to identify neo-antigens, coupled with bioinformatic algorithms and computer modelling. A customized vaccine designed and produced to fight neo-antigens identified at the lab, once introduced into the patient’s body, recognizes the neo-antigens and triggers a powerful cascade of natural defence mechanisms geared towards fighting the neoplasm. Importantly, preliminary research suggests that a vaccine therapy aligned with the genetic properties of the cancer does not cause any important adverse reactions. This is because the vaccines are precisely targeted to act in the neoplastic focus, without damaging any of the neighbouring tissues or organs.

“These exciting advances have shown that immunotherapy drugs can become precise personalized medicines with a broad range of applications in the treatment of various types of cancer. At the University of Gdańsk, we plan to build an interdisciplinary centre specializing in cancer vaccine research. We intend to recruit, inspire and teach the next generation of researchers and medical doctors who wish to work with increasingly better oncological therapies. We would like to involve leading international advisors in our research, including both partners from the University of Edinburgh and from Polish research institutions,” says Professor Theodore Hupp, director of the new centre. The overarching idea is to develop innovative targets and control points for immunotherapy based on neoantigens. In collaboration with the industry, these will be used to design vaccines to be used in clinical practice.

Founders of the International Centre for Cancer Vaccine Science

Photo: One HD

PROF. THEODORE HUPP 

An American who is currently working in the UK as head of the Experimental Cancer Research Centre of the University of Edinburgh. He graduated in Chemistry from Ohio State University and received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Michigan State University. In later years, his main research interests included proteomics and proteogenomics, as well as immunosuppression caused by cancer and the role of different signalling paths in oncogenesis. He has been the main applicant or co-investigator in 25 research grant programmes funded by, among others, the Medical Research Council (MRC-UK), Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSR-UK), Cancer Research UK and AICR (Association for International Cancer Research). Besides his excellent research qualifications, he has vast experience in the area of intellectual property and in collaboration with the industry.

PROF. ROBIN FAHRAEUS

A Swedish national, currently working as head of the research group of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). He also serves as scientific advisor to the French National Cancer Institute (INCa). He obtained his Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. During his scientific career he has worked at the University of Dundee in the UK, as well as the Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute in Brno, Czech Republic. He is a laureate of many prestigious scholarships and awards.

Photo: One HD