'Game changing' skin cancer jab could also prevent three other cancers

By John Mercury April 29, 2024

The world’s first personalised mRNA cancer jab for melanoma is being tested in British patients.

The “gamechanger” jab also has the potential to stop bladder, lung and kidney cancer.

It’s custom built for each person and tells the body to identify cancer cells and stops the disease returning.

A stage-two trial found it significantly reduced the risk of cancer coming back in melanoma patients and now a final trial has been launched.

University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) is leading the phase.

Dr Heather Shaw, co-ordinating investigator of the trial, said it was “one of the most exciting things we’ve seen in a really long time”.

“This is a really finely honed tool,” she said.

“To be able to sit there and say to your patients that you’re offering them something that’s effectively like the Fat Duck at Bray versus McDonald’s – it’s that level of cordon bleu that’s coming to them.

“These things are hugely technical and finely generated for the patient. The patients are really excited about them.”

The jab is an individualised neoantigen therapy (INT) and can trigger the immune system to fight the patient’s specific type of cancer.

To create the personalised therapy, a tumour sample is removed and has its DNA sequenced – with artificial intelligence also playing a role.

Dr Heather Shaw with Steve Young, one of those involved in the trial
Dr Heather Shaw with Steve Young, one of those involved in the trial

Dr Shaw said: “This is very much an individualised therapy and it’s far cleverer in some senses than a vaccine.

“It is absolutely custom built for the patient – you couldn’t give this to the next patient in the line because you wouldn’t expect it to work.”

She added: “I think there is a real hope that these will be the gamechangers in immunotherapy.”

Skin cancer statistics

A common form of cancer which can be treated by surgery.

There were 224,000 skin cancers in England in 2019 and over 1.4 million between 2013 and 2019, making it the most common cancer diagnosed in the country, NHS Digital said on its website. For comparison, there were 288,753 new cancer diagnoses in 2020 overall.

In 2021, the most recent year for which there is published data, there were 15,861 new cases of malignant melonoma of the skin in England, across all ages.

8,078 of them were in men and 7,783 in women.

Devon was the worst-affected NHS region, with over 300 cases in both men and women across all ages.

Rates of cancer death fell in 2020, by 1% in males and 2% in females compared to 2019.

Around 15,400 people are diagnosed with melanoma in the UK each year, the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust said on its website.

The rate of malignant melanoma in Britain has risen faster than any other common cancer. Over the last decade, the number of people diagnosed with melanoma in the UK has increased by almost half.

Skin cancer becomes more common with age and melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK.

Melanoma skin cancer cases account for 2% of all male cancer deaths in the UK, and 1% of all female cancer deaths.

Rates of malignant melanoma are increasing rapidly. Since 1997, there has been an increase of 155% for over 55s and 63% for under 55s.

Surgery is the main treatment for melanoma, especially if it’s found early. Radiotherapy, medicines and chemotherapy are also sometimes used, NHS Digital said on its website.

Surgery may also remove both the melanoma and an area of healthy skin around it, which helps lower the chances of it coming back.

Swollen lymph glands can also be removed if the cancer has spread to them or melanomas that have spread to other areas of the body.

Plastic surgery may be used if the melanoma is in a visible area and skin grafts are employed if necessary.

The aim is to ultimately cure the cancer and eradicate any rogue cells that might not show on scans.

The phase-two trial found people with high-risk melanomas who got the jab – alongside immunotherapy drug Keytruda – were about half (49%) as likely to die or have their cancer come back after three years than those who just had Keytruda.

Read more from Sky News:
Take-at-home brain cancer treatment for kids soon available on NHS

The phase-three global trial will include a wider range of patients and researchers are hoping to recruit around 1,100 people.

At least 60 to 70 patients across eight UK centres are set to be recruited and the twin therapy combination will also be tested in lung, bladder and kidney cancer.

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Professor Lawrence Young, from the University of Warwick, called it “one of the most exciting developments in modern cancer therapy”.

“Interest in cancer vaccines has been reignited in recent years by a deeper understanding of how the body controls immune responses and by the advent of mRNA vaccines which makes developing a vaccine based on the immune profile of a patient’s own tumour much more straightforward,” said Prof Young.

“The hope is that this approach could be extended to other cancers such as those of the lung and colon.”


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