National Cancer Institute @nci

Technology changes and enhances our lives in many ways. It also enables more constructive cancer research in a variety of unexpected ways. In this article, UT Austin professor Kevin Dalby shares his thoughts about personalized vaccines, cell therapy, new analytical and gene editing technologies, and microbiome treatments that are getting us closer to a future where cancer is a curable disease.

Personalized vaccines

A recent clinical study’s results indicate that a personalized vaccine, combined with an immunotherapy drug, had an encouraging response in patients with advanced incurable head and neck cancer.

Oncologists at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson — in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Moderna — led a phase one clinical trial to test the use of personalized vaccines created from tumor DNA with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab.

Of the ten patients involved in the study, 30% of cancer mass decreased for five. Furthermore, cancer could no longer be detected for two of the patients.

Cell therapy

Cell therapy, or cytotherapy, is a treatment in which viable cells are implanted into a patient to cause a therapeutic effect. For example, transplanting T-cells capable of fighting cancer cells in the course of immunotherapy can regenerate diseased tissues.

In recent decades stem cell and cell transplantation have gained significant interest by scientists as a potential new therapeutic approach for a wide range of diseases, particularly for degenerative and immunogenic pathologies.

Analytical technologies

Some new imaging tools can take non-invasive images using bioluminescence. Others only required a small sample from the patient, but even so, these tools allow researchers to visually inspect patients.

Gene expression and gene editing tools such as PCR and CRISPR help researchers understand cancerous cells’ genetic codes. These devices can also be used to reprogram a cell’s function by modifying its genetic code.

Recent innovations in flow cytometers have made it possible to employ these tools to profile several cells in a single assay of whole blood. Flow cytometers can be used to evaluate therapies and cancer vaccines.

Microbiome

Research teams from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of Chicago have conducted experiments demonstrating the possibility of manipulating the microbiome to affect treatment responses. In a series of experiments, researchers transplanted gut microbes from metastatic melanoma patients — some of whom responded well to checkpoint inhibitors and some patients who did not — into mice.

Two weeks later, the researchers introduced cancer cells along with checkpoint inhibitors to the mice every three days for another two weeks. The drugs worked to decrease tumors in the mice that received human bacteria from successfully treated patients. The drugs were not effective in mice that got bacteria from the humans who did not respond well to treatment.

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby, UT Austin, is a professor of chemical biology and medicinal chemistry, currently working on cancer drug discovery. At the College of Pharmacy at The University of Texas, he examines the mechanisms of nature and cancer to develop new treatments and teach and motivate students to conduct research. Dalby is optimistic about the future of cancer treatments.