Vaccine Offers Hope Against Once Hopeless Disease

November 13, 1996

BUFFALO, NY - Researchers at Roswell Park Cancer Institute are testing a promising new vaccine against pancreatic cancer, a silent, virulent disease which boasts one of cancer's poorest survival rates.

This year, 26,300 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; 95% will die, many within a few months.

"Tragically, the so-called standard treatments for pancreatic cancer are suboptimal in terms of impacting on patient survival and quality of life," said Neal J. Meropol, MD, a clinician in the Division of Medicine and principal investigator of the clinical study. "Thanks to recent advances in our understanding of tumor immunology and the genetic basis for pancreatic cancer, however, we have begun to open the door to therapies which hold promise for improving outcomes. Vaccine therapy is one such example."

Approximately 90% of pancreatic cancers have an abnormal variant of a gene called ras, which gives rise to an abnormal RAS protein. In collaboration with researchers from the National Cancer Institute, Meropol and his colleagues designed the research study based on compelling preclinical evidence that a special vaccine against this mutant ras protein could effectively "jumpstart" a weakened immune system to fight the disease.

Applying techniques of molecular biology, the Roswell Park researchers sequence each patient's abnormal ras gene to identify the specific mutation. A vaccine is then prepared which mimics a section of the individual's specific mutated RAS protein.

Monthly boosters of the vaccine will be administered in an effort to generate an immune response against mutant ras protein. An immune response is the ability of certain blood cells (lymphocytes) and their products (antibodies) to attack tumor cells. Since only the cancer cells have mutant ras, a therapy tailor-made against the target will theoretically selectively spare normal tisssue from the assault.

Meropol plans to recruit approximately 20 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer for the study.

"Gene-directed therapy represents an important new avenue in pancreatic cancer research," said Meropol. "If successful, this study and others like it may lead to a time when physicians can confidently inform their patients that a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence and that more effective treatments are available."

The study has been made possible with partial grant support from Cambridge Biotech and the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation.

For information on patient participation, call Ingrid Nevins, RN, at 716-845-4359.

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Editor's Note: The pancreas, an organ located in the upper abdominal cavity between the stomach and liver, produces enzymes that aid in food digestion, and hormones, such as insulin. Pancreatic cancer has been linked to cigarette smoking, and there exists suggestive, but less definitive evidence that alcohol use, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes and exposure to certain industrial chemicals may predispose individuals to developing the disease. Diagnosis is often delayed because the symptoms are vague and mimic those of other more common maladies, such as peptic ulcer disease. Most patients are diagnosed when the cancer is too extensive to be removed, or has spread to other sites, such as the liver, lungs, or bone.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

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