Baylor researchers develop new therapy for cancer patients

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted viruses and is a common cause of many types of mucosal cancers, including virtually all cervical, vaginal, penile and vulvar cancers. Of these, cervical cancer is the second most frequent gynecological malignancy in the world. It also represents 12 percent of cancer in women overall. Oropharyngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer that has been associated with HPV, is also currently emerging as a major cancer epidemic worldwide.

There are currently two vaccines, Gardasil® and Cervarix®, on the market that are given to the general population to prevent HPV infection. Unfortunately, many people were infected before these vaccines were available, and even today compliance with this vaccination is not total. Once HPV infects and causes cancer, the standard of care is chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, which still cause significant morbidity and socioeconomic costs.

Currently, a team of researchers at Baylor Institute for Immunology Research (BIIR), led by SangKon Oh, PhD, and Gerard Zurawski, PhD, are developing a novel immunotherapeutic vaccine for patients who have been diagnosed with these HPV-associated cancers. This new vaccine, when injected into the patient, is taken up by cells of the immune system called dendritic cells. These dendritic cells then “educate” other immune cells, such as T cells, to find and kill tumor cells or HPV-infected cells.

BIIR HPV researchers

This type of “off-the-shelf” therapy could potentially be given to patients with any type of cancer that is caused by HPV. It would be delivered by several injections into the skin of the patient over the course of several months. Vaccines made at BIIR that target dendritic cells could also potentially be used for other types of cancers and infectious diseases.

The Scott & White Healthcare Cancer Research Institute in Temple, Texas, has a facility capable of manufacturing the HPV vaccine for clinical trials and will produce the vaccine over the next year. BIIR is currently in the pre-clinical phase of manufacturing and safety testing in animal models. Following the successful completion of that phase, plans are to conduct a clinical trial of approximately 20 to 30 patients in late 2015 to early 2016. Additional funding of approximately $2–3 million will be needed for implementation of the clinical trials.

BIIR has been working with dendritic cell-targeting technology for approximately 10 years. This will be the first vaccine from that platform of technologies to be produced by BIIR for potential use in patients. Clay Beauregard, PhD, director of therapeutic development at BIIR, said, “Our platform of targeting specific cancer antigens to dendritic cells is based on the work of the late Nobel laureate, Dr. Ralph Steinman, who discovered the dendritic cell. Researchers at BIIR have expanded on this concept by designing molecules that increase the effectiveness of generating a T-cell response in the body that can kill specific types of tumor cells. This has been demonstrated in laboratory animal models and in blood cells from human cancer patients. We are now preparing to bring this first technology into patients for important Phase 1 clinical trials.”

For more information regarding research initiatives, contact Sarah Burdi.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of the Baylor Health Care System Foundation publication The Torch.

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Baylor researchers develop new therapy for cancer patients