UK and China research team take first steps towards a vaccine for pancreatic cancer

November 26, 2019

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Zhengzhou University have developed a personalised vaccine system that could ultimately delay the onset of pancreatic cancer. The study provides strong proof-of-concept for the creation of a vaccine for cancer prevention in individuals at high risk of developing this disease and to slow down tumour growth in patients who are affected by it.

The study reports the team's work with a pre-clinical model using mice. The research was published today in Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Although vaccines do exist for some cancers caused by known pathogens, such as the human papilloma virus in cervical cancer, vaccination against non-viral cancers has remained a challenge. In the study, researchers created a vaccine system that doubled the survival time of mice with pancreatic cancer. Importantly, the vaccine system can be personalised for the individual receiving it and could potentially be tailored to work against other types of cancer.

Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognise and kill pathogens within the body. To do this, immune cells must recognise molecules on the surface of the pathogens, called antigens. By injecting these antigens as a vaccine, the immune system can safely learn how to recognise them as foreign objects - and remember this should they be found in the body again.

Professor Yaohe Wang from Queen Mary University of London and the Sino-British Research Centre at Zhengzhou University in China, who led the study, said: "Development of a preventive vaccine against non-viral cancers is hugely limited by the lack of appropriate tumor antigens and an effective approach to induce robust anti-tumor immunity against those antigens. Through this international collaboration we have made progress towards the development of a prophylactic cancer vaccine against pancreatic cancer.

"This is preliminary data from tests on mice but it could be a platform for developing personalised and powerful cancer vaccines to reduce cancer incidence in at-risk individuals."

To make the vaccine, researchers took cells from mice and turned them into pancreatic cancer cells by adding two errors into their genetic code. These errors, or mutations, are known drivers of pancreatic cancer. The team then infected these cells with viruses, which have an important role in the vaccine system. Not only do the viruses kill the cells to remove their ability to form tumours within the body, but they do so in a way that activates the immune system against these cells.

As the cells die following injection into the subject, they release antigens specific to these pancreatic cancer cells, priming the immune system to recognise the initiation of cancer and prevent its development within the body.

By injecting these virus-infected cells into mice that were destined to develop pancreatic cancer, the team were able to delay the onset of disease, doubling their survival time when compared with mice who did not receive the vaccine.

The genetic makeup of cancer varies from individual to individual. That means treatments that are effective for one patient's cancer may not be effective against another's. Notably, because the cells were derived from the mice that were going to receive the vaccine, the cells created were genetically similar to the cancer that was going to develop in these mice. This suggests that cells could be taken from at-risk individuals and used to create matching tumour cells for use in a vaccine regime tailored to those individuals.

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of all the common cancers, with less than 5% of those diagnosed surviving for longer than five years.

Dr Louisa Chard Dunmall, senior postdoctoral research fellow at Queen Mary, said: "One reason for this low survival rate is lack of symptoms, meaning diagnosis is often not made until the cancer is at an advanced stage. This suggests a window of opportunity for the application of preventative vaccine strategies. Although this research is at the early developmental stages, it provides strong evidence that the creation of a vaccine against pancreatic cancer is possible." The research was undertaken by scientists from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary, the Sino-British Research Centre at Zhengzhou University and the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Sino-British Research Centre is a joint venture established by Queen Mary and Zhengzhou University.

The team will now look at different ways of improving the regime - including increasing the number of vaccinations or combining the vaccine with other therapies such as immunotherapies.
The research was funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and Zhengzhou University.

More information

For more information or to request an interview please contact Chris Mahony at Queen Mary University of London press office on 0207 8825315 or email

Notes to editors

A Virus-Infected, Reprogrammed Somatic cell-derived Tumor cell (VIReST) regime can prevent initiation and progression of pancreatic cancer DOI 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-19-1395 and is available after the embargo lifts at

About Queen Mary University of London

At Queen Mary University of London, we believe that a diversity of ideas helps us achieve the previously unthinkable.

In 1785, Sir William Blizard established England's first medical school, The London Hospital Medical College, to improve the health of east London's inhabitants. Together with St Bartholomew's Medical College, founded by John Abernethy in 1843 to help those living in the City of London, these two historic institutions are the bedrock of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Today, Barts and The London continues to uphold this commitment to pioneering medical education and research. Being firmly embedded within our east London community, and with an approach that is driven by the specific health needs of our diverse population, is what makes Barts and The London truly distinctive.

Our local community offer to us a window to the world, ensuring that our ground-breaking research in cancer, cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, and population health not only dramatically improves the outcomes for patients in London, but also has a far-reaching global impact.

This is just one of the many ways in which Queen Mary is continuing to push the boundaries of teaching, research and clinical practice, and helping us to achieve the previously unthinkable.

About Sino-British Research Centre for Molecular Oncology and Zhengzhou University

Sino-British Research Centre for Molecular oncology was jointly established by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Zhengzhou University (ZZU) in April 2006. The Research Centre is based upon the concept of equal partnership and mutual benefits between ZZU and QMUL. The purpose of the Research Centre is to introduce in China up-to-date research activities in the field of molecular oncology in order to meet the demand of the region's economy for internationally recognised expertise, and to promote international academic and research exchange between the Parties.

ZZU is situated in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. Located in central plains, Henan is one of the most important birthplaces of the Chinese civilization and the Chinese nation. ZZU is on the list of National "211 Project" of key construction universities, and of "One Province, One University" of National Key Support Construction Universities, as well as of co-construction universities by Henan Province and Ministry of Education. In September of 2017, ZZU entered the construction sequence of National World First-class Universities. ZZU embraces a wide range of enrollment of over 55,000 full-time undergraduates, over 15,000 full-time postgraduates of all kinds and some 1,800 international students from more than 116 countries and regions. Medical education of ZZU could date back to the establishment of National No.5 Sun Yat-sen University in 1928, whose medicine discipline became an independent institution, and was renamed "Henan Medical College" in 1952, hence breaking a new ground for Henan modern medical education. The former ZZU, the first comprehensive university established by new China in 1956, was approved to enter National "211 Project" list in 1996. Zhengzhou University of Technology (ZUT), a national key university founded in 1963, was under the direct leadership of the former Ministry of Chemical Industry. A new ZZU was born in July 2000 when the former ZZU, ZUT and Henan Medical University (HMU) merged into one.

ZZU has established intercollegiate cooperative relationship with over 220 well-known universities in more than 40 countries and regions like the United States, the United Kingdom, etc, including University of California, Los Angeles, Queen Mary University of London, University of Oslo, Norway, Aarhus University, Denmark, Gothenburg University, Sweden and other well-known foreign universities and research institutions.

Queen Mary University of London

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