Jefferson Scientists' Results Raise Hope For Ovarian Cancer Vaccine

February 10, 1998

Jefferson Medical College researchers have created what they believe may prove to be an effective ovarian cancer vaccine made from a patient¹s own cancer cells. After testing the vaccine on 11 patients, each with advanced disease, the scientists are encouraged after seeing an initial immune reaction. That tells them that the vaccine is effectively stimulating the immune system into action.

Charles J. Dunton, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the division of gynecologic oncology and David Berd, M.D., professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, presents the team¹s results Feb. 9 at the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists meeting in Orlando.

Whether or not the vaccine ultimately is an effective treatment against ovarian cancer has yet to be determined. "We looked for an immune reaction, with the idea that such a reaction might mean the vaccine would prove potentially beneficial," notes Dr. Dunton, who is also a member of Jefferson¹s Kimmel Cancer Center. "To our surprise, a majority of the patients developed an immune response to their own ovarian cancer cells after receiving the vaccine."

Co-author David Berd, M.D., professor of medicine at Jefferson¹s Kimmel Cancer Center, created the vaccine technology. The current vaccine is autologous, meaning that it¹s prepared from a patient¹s own cancer cells. Each vaccine is custom-made for the patient. Before injecting the cells into patients, the cells are inactivated and treated with a chemical, dinitrophenyl, which chemically modifies them. The modified cells apparently appear foreign to the body¹s immune system, causing a reaction against them.

The treatment has been safe in this initial group of patients with no significant side effects noted, Dr. Dunton says. The next step in the research, he notes, would be a randomized clinical trial with many more ovarian cancer patients to compare standard surgery and chemotherapy to standard treatment plus the vaccine.

AVAX Technologies, Inc., of Kansas City, MO, is currently developing a Phase III trial to test the effectiveness of an autologous malignant melanoma vaccine on patients with disease that has spread to the lymph nodes. The five-year trial, already underway, will compare the effectiveness of the melanoma vaccine to the standard treatment, which is alpha interferon. The trial will involve 250 patients seen at institutions in several major cities.

The scientists explain that many labs are working on generic cancer vaccines, but few have attempted autologous vaccines because of the technical difficulty involved in producing a vaccine for each individual patient. "We expect to show that our autologous cancer vaccine is not only effective, but also practical and applicable to large numbers of patients at sites throughout the country," Dr. Berd says.

Jefferson Medical College is also home to a unique cancer vaccine processing facility. It is the only one of its kind in Philadelphia, and perhaps the nation.

AVAX, which has exclusive rights to the Jefferson-based vaccine against malignant melanoma and other cancers, has built the vaccine laboratory to increase quantities of the vaccine for future testing and use. The lab is a so-called "clean lab," which means it meets strict federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards.

Ovarian cancer accounts for 4 percent of cancer cases in women. Of those, only 46 percent live for five years or more. The National Cancer Institute estimates some 27,000 women in the country will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year. Approximately 14,000 will die of it.

Thomas Jefferson University

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