University of Arizona clinical trial expanding after early results with personalized cancer vaccine

Cancer treatment

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Despite the pandemic, groundbreaking research has not stopped at the University of Arizona.

Researchers with University of Arizona Health Sciences are working to help treat cancer by using personalized vaccines. It works in combination with the immuno-therapy drug Pembrolizumab.

Deputy Director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, Julie E. Bauman, MD, MPH, presented her early findings of the first 10 patients with head and neck cancer. Seven of them were treated at Banner UMC. Half of the patients expereinced a response to their personalized cancer vaccine, where two had a complete response.

Molly Cassidy is one of the two who experienced the complete response.

“I was a young healthy woman, so it was a big shock to get diagnosed,” said Cassidy.

She was first diagnosed with oral cancer after complaining of an ear ache. Dentists initially found a tumor in her tongue that was later identified as cancer. She then went through treatment for the tumor, but her cancer came back aggressively.

“I had tumors throughout my neck, in my lungs, I was really really ill,” said Cassidy.

At this time she was seeing Bauman, who said they both understood her chances of survival were slim at that point.

“I was writing my will,” said Cassidy.

“She asked me to prepare her. It was not viewed as curable and she began to do end of life work,” said Bauman.

That’s when Bauman offered her the option of joining her clinical trial. It’s a treatment tailored specifically to the patient. Their cancer cells are used to develop a personalized vaccine that teaches their immune system how to recognize and destroy their cancer.

According to the university, to identify the patient-specific mutations of the cancer, mutated DNA from the patient’s tumor is simultaneously sequenced with healthy DNA from the patient’s blood. Computers compare the two DNA samples to identify the unique cancer mutations.

The results are used to develop a set of genetic instructions that are loaded onto a single molecule of messenger RNA (mRNA) and made into a vaccine. These instructions teach immune cells such as T-cells – white blood cells that help protect against infection – how to identify and attack the mutated cancer cells.

“It’s a medicine that is individualized, personalized, and is not one size fits all,” said Bauman.

Cassidy began the series of 9 shots of her specific vaccine and for the first time things were improving.

“We were cautiously hopeful,” said Bauman.

It makes her one of two patients in the trial who’ve responded completely, with cancer no longer detectable on a CT scan.

“To see that reversed was striking, stunning, extremely unusual,” said Bauman.

The trial is now being expanded to more patients due to the early results, as Bauman is now working with 40 patients with head and neck cancer. Giving those like Cassidy a second chance to picture life after a cancer diagnosis.

“To have such a great response has given me so much of my life back,” said Cassidy.

Her treatment is for two years in the trial, and so far Cassidy remains in complete response. Follow her journey here:

Bauman said a personalized vaccine also strives to be less toxic on the body, by not awakening cells that typically attack the organs with regular immunotherapy.

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