New vaccine hope for leukaemia sufferers
'Breakthrough' drug ready to be tested on humans
A vaccine for leukaemia is about to be tested on human patients for the first time in a breakthrough that could offer hope to thousands.
Researchers have developed a treatment that can be used to stop the disease returning after chemotherapy or a bone-marrow transplant.
It is hoped the drug, which activates the body's own immune system against the leukaemia, eventually could be used to treat other cancers.
The first patients will be treated as part of a small trial at King's College London.
Last night, Dr Gerard Connaghan, Consultant Haematologist at St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin, said experts would be studying the results of the trial with interest.
"The appeal of the vaccine is that it would theoretically use the body's normal mechanism of getting rid of undesired cells in a natural way as opposed to chemotherapy," Dr Connaghan explained.
He said it was "early days" but such a vaccine would allow for a "less toxic treatment".
"For many years it has been frustratingly difficult to come up with vaccines able to introduce a strong enough reaction to control this disease," the consultant added.
However, he said scientists have now amassed much greater information about the proteins on leukaemia cells. The patients in the trial have acute myeloid leukaemia, the most common form of the disease in adults. Even with aggressive treatment, the disease returns in about half.
The idea behind cancer vaccines is not necessarily to prevent the disease. Instead, once a patient has been diagnosed, the vaccine programmes the immune system to hunt down cancer cells and destroy them.
The immune system will recognise leukaemia cells if they return, preventing a relapse.
The vaccine is created by removing cells from the patient's blood and manipulating them in the laboratory.
The cells are given two genes which act as flags to help identify the leukaemia. It effectively focuses and boosts the immune system's ability to seek out and destroy cancer cells.
Leukaemia affects around 7,200 patients a year. About 4,300 die from the disease.
Treatment comes in two stages -- chemotherapy to rid the body of the disease, then either more chemotherapy or a bone-marrow transplant to prevent it returning.
Prof Farzaneh, Professor of Molecular Medicine at King's College London, said if the trials are successful then it could be used to treat other leukaemias and cancers.
The cost of treating each patient is thought to be around £15,000 (€16,800), about 10pc more than standard treatment.