However, the Cancer Research Campaign, which funded the research, said that it has been unable to interest a British company in the vaccine. Yesterday, an American biotechnology company signed a deal giving it exclusive world-wide rights to develop it further.
Professor Gordon McVie, scientific director of the CRC, which raises money through a network of charity shops and public donations, said that, despite every effort, a British partner could not be found to produce the large quantities of vaccine that were now needed for the clinical trials.
He said it was the fourth such deal that CRC Technology - the technology transfer arm of the CRC - had signed recently with a non- British partner. 'It is very sad . . . none of the British companies has the resources or the vision to take this on . . . We believe this is an exciting discovery, which could improve survival rates without side- effects associated with conventional chemotherapy.'
The potential for a bowel-cancer vaccine is enormous. The disease is the second most common cancer in developed countries, and the leading cause of death after lung cancer in the United Kingdom. Unless it is diagnosed early the cure rates are low, and there has been no significant fall in the death rate since the 1950s. More than 28,000 people develop colo-rectal cancer each year but less than a third are alive five years after diagnosis.
Dr Lindy Durrant and Dr Adrian Robbins, from the Department of Surgery at the University Hospital, Nottingham, who developed the vaccine, say that in addition to slowing progress of the disease, it may also have a preventive action in people who are at high risk of developing the cancer. They will present full results of the pilot trials next week at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in San Francisco, and their report will be published in the International Journal of Cancer next month.
The vaccine, known as 105AD7, is a monoclonal antibody which locks on to a molecule (antigen) which is specific to bowel cancer cells. This stimulates the patient's own immune system to produce white blood cells and proteins, which should attack the cancer cells and kill them without producing any toxic side-effects.
In Phase I trials in five patients with advanced bowel cancer, scientists found that the antibody did indeed target only the cancer cells. Phase II trials in 13 patients with advanced disease showed that the vaccine triggered the production of T-lymphocytes and interleukin-2. There was some improvement in survival times but the group was too small for this to be conclusive. Recruitment for a large-scale randomised trial in Nottingham is now under way, and it is likely to be expanded to include patients from other centres.
Professor McVie said yesterday that immunotherapy for cancer had fallen into disrepute after failing to live up to expectations of the early 1980s because of the toxic side-effects. 'The astonishing thing about this vaccine is that it does what it is supposed to do - boost lymphocytes and interleukin levels - without toxicity,' he said.Reuse content