10 July 2017

New alternative to chemo won’t eat healthy cells

Instead of chemotherapy, a new vaccine aims to prevent cancer from recurring in melanoma skin cancer patients.

Cancer vaccines aim to prevent the development of a specific cancer or to treat an existing cancer. Thus far, an effective cancer vaccine has been elusive.  

Two experimental vaccines for skin cancer, tailor-made for individual cancer patients, proved safe in small-scale trials, developers reported.

Severe side-effects

The vaccines also triggered an immune response to tumour cells, they said, although this does not necessarily equate to a cure.

These are the first drug trials in humans with personalised vaccines directed at neoantigens – molecules, caused by DNA mutations, found in cancer cells. The results of both were published in the journal Nature.

Neoantigens do not appear in normal cells of the human body, making them an ideal target for cancer therapy. Conventional treatments such as chemotherapy kill healthy cells as well as sick ones, with severe side-effects for patients.

Positive results

"The vaccine was shown to be feasible, safe and consistently immunogenic (producing an immune response) in all patients vaccinated," study co-author Patrick Ott of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston told AFP of the first vaccine, dubbed NeoVax.

Unlike a traditional vaccine that prevents disease, the aim of NeoVax is to prevent cancer from recurring in melanoma skin cancer patients after their tumours have been surgically removed.

For the time being, the team cannot conclude that their vaccine has this effect.

Health24 previously reported that a new skin cancer vaccine would become available and would be used on children aged between 10 and 12 to prevent them from developing skin cancer.

They tested the therapy in a Phase I safety trial on six melanoma survivors. Twenty-five months later, on average, four had not had a recurrence.

"The number of patients who were treated is low, so there is certainly a likelihood that these patients would have stayed cancer-free without vaccine," said Ott.

Typically, at least half of melanoma patients relapse within two years.

Further study needed 

Ott said there is already one type of cancer vaccine, for prostate cancer, on the market, but it is not widely used.

Another, for lung, bladder, and skin cancer, is undergoing a Phase II efficacy trial, in combination with another drug.

"We've long recognised in cancer that every patient's tumour is different," the team said in a statement.

Individualised therapy

"With recent advances in technology, it's now becoming possible to create a therapy that's suited to target an individual's tumour."

The NeoVax treatment contained up to 20 neoantigens derived from patient tumours.

The researchers sequenced the DNA of tumour cells and healthy cells from each person to identify cancer-specific mutations and pinpoint the neoantigens involved.

cancer,skin cancer,skin cancer vaccine,health


The patients had their immune systems "trained" to recognise these molecules, with the goal of stimulating an attack.

In a second study published in the same journal, a team tested another personalised vaccine on 13 people with melanoma.

This vaccine was similarly safe and induced an immune response, they concluded.

"The two studies confirm the potential of this type of approach," Cornelis Melief of the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands wrote in a comment.

Next-phase trials in larger groups of participants are now needed, he said, "to establish the efficacy of these vaccines".

Read more:

Types of skin cancer

Risk factors for skin cancer

Preventing skin cancer


Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules