Vaccine Implants Aim to Train Immune Response Against Melanoma

Of the many ways scientists are trying to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer, here is one of the most innovative: an approach that involves implanting small, biodegradable, sponge-like disks under the skin to attract key immune cells in the bloodstream—and “train” them to dispatch front-line defender cells (T cells) on a cancer search-and-destroy mission throughout the body.

This approach, called an implantable cancer treatment vaccine, worked well against melanoma tumors in animal models. Now, researchers at Dana-Farber are testing it in a small phase 1 clinical trial of patients with melanoma.

Mary Gooding, 61, of Jamestown, RI, has battled with melanoma several times. In 2017, the cancer had spread, and after surgery to remove part of her left lung, F. Stephen Hodi, MD, director of the Melanoma Treatment Center and the Center for Immuno-Oncology at Dana-Farber, asked Gooding if she was interested in participating in trial of the implantable vaccine. Although the trial is primarily aimed at evaluating its safety, the vaccine might help her immune system mop up cancer cells remaining in her body.

“I looked at him and said, absolutely!” says Gooding.

Mary Gooding and F. Stephen Hodi, MD.
Mary Gooding and F. Stephen Hodi, MD.

The vaccine implant is a disk about the size of a baby aspirin and made from a porous biodegradable material like that used in surgical sutures. It was developed at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, which is collaborating on the clinical trial with Dana-Farber.

Each implant is individually tailored, containing fragments of the patient’s tumor cells along with a white blood cell growth factor that attracts dendritic cells.  Dendritic cells are immune cells whose function is to “educate” T cells about the identity of the cancer cells they are to seek out and destroy. They migrate to nearby lymph nodes, where they cause T cells to proliferate and circulate through the body, looking for tumor cells and, hopefully, creating a long-lasting immune memory against the cancer.

Gooding had four implants inserted over a period of weeks—one in each upper arm and one in each thigh. The disks were implanted through one-inch incisions, which Gooding says were “no big deal.” She continues to follow up with Hodi and  so far, she says, “everything looks good.”

The trial of the implantable vaccine is nearly finished recruiting patients, and Hodi says data will be analyzed and reported sometime in 2019.

4 responses to “Vaccine Implants Aim to Train Immune Response Against Melanoma

  1. Hello Dr. Hodi,

    I’m so very happy to read that advances in the treatment of malignant melanoma are evolving and that you are an instrumental part of this research and treatment.

    You began treating my husband, John J Caffrey III, almost 17 years ago. We always knew we had “the very best” oncologist for his diagnosis of malignant melanoma. Dr. Osteen referred us to you in February 2002.

    I’ve followed your research in the Dana Farber newsletters all these years and will be forever grateful for all the care you gave to John throughout his 6 year battle through 3 cancers as well as all the support you gave to both of us during that time.

    Your research & Dana Farber will always be supported by me & eventually my estate, as it will donated in its entirety to Dana Farber. You and Dana Farber deserve nothing less.

    You were and will forever be a prominent person in John’s “Dream Team”. (Dr. Michael Jacklitsch) coined the phrase)

    It’s timely that I read & sent you this email as John’s 10th anniversary was yesterday, 11/13/18.

    God bless you in all your work for John & all your patients forever.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Patricia Caffrey

  2. My partner has had 2 bouts with neck cancer, the papilloma virus.
    It would be great to trigger his immune system the mop up any remaining g cells

  3. How specifically do the immune cells educate T cells to identify cancer cells they are to destroy? Normally one thinks of educating through language – what is the mechanism used —

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