Cancer vaccines getting a boost from science born in Chicago


When we think of vaccines, we often think of a flu or covid shot. But they’re also used to help patients fight cancer.

And now cancer vaccines are getting a boost from science born in Chicago.

Northwestern University scientists have harnessed the power of nanotechnology to improve the way cancer vaccines work. They think they’re tiny structures will yield big changes when it comes to more effective treatments.

Chad Mirkin, Ph.D. is a Northwestern University professor.

“Vaccines will become, they are the replacement ultimately for chemotherapies,” he said.

An immunotherapy approach – the body’s own defenses to seek and destroy cancerous cells – is often used for those with melanoma or prostate cancer.

“We’ve been working on cancer vaccines for about a decade,” Mirkin said.

Mirkin and his team focus on small structures. They’re using nanotechnology, not to change the components of vaccines, rather to change how they are constructed.

“One of the things we’re really trying to push is structure really is one of the critical factors and that how you put together a vaccine can be the difference between good and bad, effective or ineffective,” Mirkin said. “And that turned out to be true in almost every case we looked at.”

In Mirkin’s novel vaccine structure, components can be loaded and interchanged in specific positions  to optimize cell-to-cell communication. At the same time, the structure accommodates a more precise dose of an immune therapy.

“These types of structures can be put together very quickly,” he said. “And they are going to enable broad development of vaccines but also personal vaccines as well. We can begin to think about taking a patient’s own antigens and rapidly putting together a particular vaccine specific for them, that is the ultimate.”

The approach Mirkin calls rational vaccinology resulted in a 600% increase in tumor killing by t-cells compared to conventional vaccines. The team has tested their structure in animal studies and some Phase 2 clinical trials and cured mice with seven different cancers. Those include triple-negative breast cancer, lymphoma, cervical cancer, melanoma, colon cancer, glioma brain tumors and prostate cancer.

“In every single case we’ve shown, you can use rational vaccinology to improve efficacy,” Mirkin said. “You can’t always go from ineffective to curative, but you can move down that path and get a much better outcome.”

The structure can be applied to any type of vaccine to increase potency. Mirkin’s nano team now hopes to partner with pharmaceutical companies to move the science forward.

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