Dendritic cell vaccines could revolutionize care for pancreatic cancer

Cancer is a master of disguise. Normally, our immune systems can quickly destroy abnormal cells. But tumors are tricky — they are able to confuse the attacking immune cells, or hide altogether.

“When the immune system recognizes a cancer cell, there is no doubt it will kill that cell,” said Carlos Becerra, MD, medical director of the Innovative Clinical Trials Center at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center and a medical oncologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health.

The trouble is that cancer has developed ways to avoid recognition. One major defense is blocking the signals — known as antigens — that the immune system uses to recognize dangerous cell types.

“Cancer essentially blinds the immune system to its presence,” Dr. Becerra said.

A vaccine against cancer

“There aren’t very many centers doing this,” he said. “We have our own dendritic cell vaccine that is being developed, and we are going to start providing patients with this investigational treatment here at Baylor University Medical Center.”

But decades of study, much of it at Baylor Institute for Immunology Research, has found a way to re-educate the immune system: the dendritic cell vaccine.

“Dendritic cells are the orchestrators of immune system activation,” Dr. Becerra said. They’re responsible for collecting the antigens of invaders like bacteria and viruses — or cancer. Then they direct the immune system’s killer cells to attack these enemies.

Researchers at Baylor Institute for Immunology Research and elsewhere realized that if they could teach the dendritic cells how to recognize cancer — bypassing its disguises — the immune system could destroy tumors on its own. They started studying skin cancer, and have now turned their attention to pancreatic cancer, which is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

How it works

“The idea is to take the dendritic cells out of the bloodstream, expose them to identifying proteins from cancer cells, and give them back to the patient so they can signal the immune system to attack the cancer,” Dr. Becerra said.

In 2015, Baylor Scott & White launched the first study of a pancreatic cancer vaccine. The trial aimed to enroll 20 patients who have pancreatic cancer. Participants will receive the vaccine, as well as chemotherapy treatment.

“We’re looking at how the vaccine affects the tumors, and how the immune system responds as well,” Dr. Becerra said.

“There aren’t very many centers doing this,” he said. “We have our own dendritic cell vaccine that is being developed, and we are going to start providing patients with this investigational treatment here at Baylor University Medical Center.”

If everything goes well, the treatment could eventually become widespread. A similar approach could work for other types of cancer, Dr. Becerra said.

“If we can teach the immune system to kill these cells, patients with other types of cancer might benefit, too.”

Visit our website to learn more about research and clinical trials underway at Baylor Scott & White Health.

2 thoughts on “Dendritic cell vaccines could revolutionize care for pancreatic cancer”

  1. Pingback: Pancreatic cancer: what you need to know | Scrubbing In

  2. Pingback: Dendritic cell vaccine aims to prevent cancer in those with HPV | Scrubbing In

Leave a Reply

Dendritic cell vaccines could revolutionize care for pancreatic cancer