Cancer vaccine shows promise

A doctor injects a cancer patient with a mass-produced compound; the drug teaches the patient’s own antibodies and white blood cells how to attack cancerous tumors throughout the body. The tumors disappear.

That is the promising scenario suggested by a new cancer vaccine developed by a University of Georgia researcher.

Now in animal trials, the glycopeptide is among a new family of treatments that could change medicine. And as the foundation of a potential vaccine factory in Georgia or elsewhere, it’s also an example of the university’s effort to turn research into industry.

“Our vice president of research David Lee puts an emphasis on taking discoveries and translating products into companies,” said J. Michael Pierce, director of the UGA Cancer Center. Next in line is an attempt to raise the several million dollars needed to stage clinical trials of the compound, said researcher Geert-Jan Boons, developer of the vaccine. “To go from a mouse to a compound on the market will take seven years,” he said.

Boons, Franklin professor of chemistry in UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, collaborated on the project with Sandra Gendler at the Mayo Clinic’s Arizona facility. The treatment, called MUC1 tripartite immunotherapy, was shown to reduce tumors in mice by 80 percent or more. Boons said the compound has been used to treat breast cancer but also should be effective treatment for prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.

The efforts at the University of Georgia are possible because of the state’s cancer research infrastructure, an apparatus that grew appreciably with the creation of the Georgia Cancer Coalition in the late 1990s. Then-Gov. Roy Barnes insisted that Georgians shouldn’t have to leave the state to receive advanced treatment. The Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University has driven much of that research, and sometime in 2015 Emory should open a new center featuring proton beam treatment, the latest iteration in radiation therapy.

“Anytime there’s promising work done in the laboratory with animal models ... to me its exciting,” said Walter J. Curran Jr., executive director at Winship, of the work at UGA. Curran cautioned, however, that “even with an efficient system, to prove it beneficial in patients is optimistically a decade away.”

Winship is running clinical trials on numerous cancer drugs. A new vaccine could draw the sort of entrepreneur who established Dendreon, manufacturer of one of the few cancer vaccines approved by the FDA. Dendreon recently constructed a $70 million factory in Union City. Analysts suggest its prostate cancer vaccine, Provenge, could reap $1 billion in sales.

The compound has profit-making potential. The University of Georgia holds the patent on the drug and would derive revenue licensing it to a large pharmaceutical company.

Boons said one of the most promising aspects of MUC1 drug is its ability to stimulate all the immune system’s defenses, which could help it overcome the tendency of certain cancers to “outsmart” drug treatments by developing resistance. “If you have drugs that work on multiple levels that chance of [resistance] happening is much smaller; that is what is unique about it.”

The arrival of Boons in Georgia 12 years ago came about through the sort of aggressive recruiting that has fed the rapid growth of UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. Boons came from his native Netherlands to give a talk at the center, which he said is the largest in the world. “Over dinner they asked me ‘What would it take to get you here?’ I scratched my head and said a few things. The next day I received a call: ‘It has all been taken care of.’ ”

Amy Moore, director of research programs at the Georgia Cancer Coalition, said “We have robust talent, at UGA, at Emory, and Georgia Tech and across the state. We’ve helped to recruit 165 researchers to Georgia who are leaders in their field.”

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer with the American Cancer Society said cancer vaccines “have the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment, not in a year, but it would be over the next 10 to 20 years.” UGA’s complex carbohydrate center “is one of the best in the world,” said Brawley, which makes them well-suited to develop such vaccines.