A cancer vaccine for turning T cells into contract killers

GO-Bio 7 – Prof. Dr. Richard Kroczek – Charité - University Medicine Berlin, Comprehensive Cancer Center


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Recipient: Charité - University Medicine Berlin
Funding: GO-Bio Phase I (01.07.2016 - 31.12.2018, 3.939.527 Euro)


Vaccinations that can focus the body’s defences on combating cancer cells is a long-held goal of biomedical scientists. However, the immunotherapy approach has yet to succeed in an actual treatment scenario. Immunobiologists have only recently discovered the cause, namely the numerous tricks employed by tumour cells to stay under the radar of the immune system. The team headed by physician Richard Kroczek is hoping to foil these strategies through the use of a new vaccine technology.

The Berlin-based researchers are working on a therapeutic vaccine that stimulates the body’s cellular immune defence system, thereby preparing it for battle. Here, the role of ‘contract killer’ is taken by the cytotoxic T cells. These specialised hunters are able to detect and eliminate cancer cells, but before they can identify degenerated cells as a target for attack, other immune cells – the dendritic cells – are required to carry out the role of ‘agitator’. These nudge the T cells towards their target by presenting fragments of foreign tumour structures on their cell surfaces.

With this ‘AmpliVak’ technology, Kroczek and his team have succeeded in equipping a specific group of dendritic cells with a cancer protein target structure. The injection of the antigen is enough to get the killer T cells to attention. In addition, the researchers have developed methods for strongly increasing the number of killer cells. In mice, their technique triggered a T-cell immune response that was higher than previously possible by a factor of 100. The vaccine was highly effective and showed no adverse effects.

In the first phase of GO-Bio, the team, which is moving from the Robert Koch Institute to the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Charité University Medicine Berlin, is developing a vaccine for tumours in the ear, nose and throat area that are triggered by the ​​human papillomavirus (HPV). It is hoped that the preclinical development of the vaccine will enable clinical studies to begin in the second GO-Bio funding phase in a few years’ time. The AmpliVak technology is also being further developed for the personalised therapy of other forms of cancer.