A young British woman has become one of the first cancer patients to be injected with a new vaccine designed to stimulate the immune system so that it destroys tumours wherever they have spread in the body.
Kelly Potter, 35, was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer in July 2015 and was among the first to be enrolled on a cancer vaccine trial that will run over the next two years involving up to 30 volunteers.
Medical researchers have designed the vaccine to encourage the immune system to react against a part of the cancer cell that allows it to continuously replicate without ever dying.
At the same time, the patients on the trial will be prescribed a chemotherapy drug that should, at low doses, “lift the brakes” on the immune system so that it is no longer prevented from attacking the body’s own cancer cells, scientists said.
Ms Kelly, who lives in Beckenham, Kent, was diagnosed with stage four cervical cancer and was eligible for the trial at Guy’s Hospital in London because the disease has unfortunately spread to other sites in her body.
“Although I had excellent treatment at Guy’s where the cancer was stabilised, it had already spread to spots on my liver and lungs. So when I was told that I may be eligible for this trial, I was delighted,” Ms Potter said.
“To be part of this trial has changed my life for the better. It’s been a very positive experience and really interesting. I feel honoured to be involved. You get the best treatment anyway at Guy’s but it’s fantastic to be part of something that could be ground breaking,” she said.
Ms Potter was injected with the vaccine on 9 February and has another seven visits to the hospital to complete the treatment. Doctors have warned her that she may experience flu-like symptoms, although none has appeared to far, she said.
“My hope for the future is to beat the cancer for as long as I can, and if I can’t, I have come to terms with that. I would like to go on and inspire others with cancer,” she said.
13 ways to help prevent cancer
13 ways to help prevent cancer
Stopping smoking. This notoriously difficult habit to break sees tar build-up in the lungs and DNA alteration and causes 15,558 cancer deaths a year
Avoiding the sun, and the melanoma that comes with overexposure to harmful UV rays, could help conscientious shade-lovers dodge being one of the 7,220 people who die from it
A diet that is low in red meat can help to prevent bowel cancer, according to the research - with 30 grams a day recommended for men, and 25 a day recommended for women
Foods high in fibre, meanwhile, can further make for healthier bowels. Processed foods in developed countries appear to be causing higher rates of colon cancer than diets in continents such as Africa, which have high bean and pulse intakes
Two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day were given as the magic number for good diet in the research. Overall, diet causes only slightly fewer cancer deaths than sun exposure in Australia, at 7,000 a year
Obesity and being overweight, linked to poor diet and lack of exercise, causes 3,917 deaths by cancer a year on its own
Dying of a cancer caused by infection also comes in highly, linked to 3,421 cancer deaths a year. Infections such as human papilloma virus - which can cause cervical cancer in women - and hepatitis - can be prevented by vaccinations and having regular check-ups
Cutting back on drinks could reduce the risk of cancers caused by alcohol - such as liver cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer and mouth cancer - that are leading to 3,208 deaths a year
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Sitting around and not getting the heart pumping - less than one hour's exercise a day - is directly leading to about 1,800 people having lower immune functions and higher hormone levels, among other factors, that cause cancers
2011 Getty Images
Hormone replacement therapy, which is used to relieve symptoms of the menopause in women, caused 539 deaths from (mainly breast) cancer in Australia last year. It did, however, prevent 52 cases of colorectal cancers
2003 Getty Images
Insufficient breastfeeding, bizarrely, makes the top 10. Breastfeeding for 12 months could prevent 235 cancer cases a year, said the research
Oral contraceptives, like the Pill, caused about 105 breast cancers and 52 cervical cancers - but it also prevented about 1,440 ovarian and uterine (womb) cases of cancer last year
2006 Getty Images
Taking aspirin also prevented 232 cases in the Queensland research of colorectal and oesophagal cancers - but as it can also cause strokes, is not yet recommended as a formal treatment against the risk of cancer
The vaccine contains a small fragment of protein from an enzyme called human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT), which allows cancer cells to divide continuously. It is hoped that by injecting this antigen into the bloodstream, it will stimulate the immune system to make antibodies that attack cancer cells but leave normal, healthy cell untouched, scientists said.
“We know that the immune system in patients with advanced cancer is suppressed, so it’s unable to recognise and kill cancer cells,” said Professor Hardev Pandah, principal investigator on the trial from the University of Surrey in Guildford.
“In this trial we are investigating a form of immunotherapy designed to activate the body’s immune system by administration of a vaccine based on fragments to a key cancer protein,” Professor Pandah said.
James Spicer, the chief investigator on the trial at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Biomedical Research Centre in London, said that low doses of a chemotherapy drug will be given to the patients alongside the vaccine in order to stimulate an effective immune response against tumour cells.
“The unique feature of this study is the use of additional agents to boost the vaccination response. It is hoped this will abolish the inhibitory effect of regulatory immune cells present in the patients’ circulation, which are believed to have limited the effectiveness of previous cancer vaccine approaches,” Dr Spicer said.
“There are very few solid tumours that shouldn’t be susceptible to this sort of treatment. This is a phase one trial, but we are pretty confident that it will be safe – but whether or not it will be effective, we will have to wait and see,” he said.