Publish date: 27 June 2024

A clinical trial at UCLH will investigate whether a new type of immune therapy can prevent colorectal cancer from returning.

UCLH is one of several sites around the country taking part in the trial which is sponsored by BioNTech. The therapy being trialled is an example of a class of personalised treatments colloquially known as ‘cancer vaccines’. The first patient in the study has received the investigational jab at University Hospitals Birmingham.

The trial – which at UCLH is led by consultant medical oncologist Dr Kai-Keen Shiu – will involve patients who have had stage 2 or 3 rectal cancer or stage 3 colon cancer and who have had their tumour completely removed surgically – but who are found to have circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) in their blood.

The presence of this ctDNA means the risk of the cancer returning is higher than in its absence. ctDNA can be released by a patient’s tumour into the blood while the tumour is still present in the body. ctDNA can remain in the blood once the tumour has been removed.

The research aims to see if treatment with a personalised cancer ‘vaccine’ – currently known as BNT122 – can induce an immune response such that the ctDNA does not lead to a recurrence of cancer. The team will compare the treatment with the conventional approach of watching and monitoring patients for signs of cancer returning.

The study is part of a groundbreaking NHS programme called The Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad (CVLP) to help trial and develop new cancer immunotherapies.

The launch of the CVLP means thousands of cancer patients in England are set to gain fast-tracked access to trials of personalised cancer vaccines.

Personalised vaccine candidates are created by analysing a patient’s tumour or ctDNA to identify mutations that are specific to that one cancer, and using that information to create an investigational immunotherapy personal to that patient.

The investigational vaccine aims to stimulate the immune system to specifically recognise and destroy the cancer cells expressing the same mutations – preventing cancer from returning after the patient has undergone surgery to remove the primary tumour.

Several cancer vaccine trials have opened or are due to open at UCLH, with the development of new treatments for cancer a major strategic priority for research at UCLH and UCL, underpinned by clinical and research infrastructure and facilities supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).