Slingluff and colleagues’ approach involves administering peptides, short chains of amino acids that are targets for the immune system on the surface of cancer cells. Unlike the Moderna approach, his team doesn’t use mRNA – the same technology in COVID-19 vaccines.
Even so, the UVA team has also witnessed significant preliminary successes. In a prior small trial at UVA, four patients experienced tumor shrinkage or stabilization for between one and seven years with their melanoma vaccine alone.
And in a more recent report, there was a higher-than-expected rate of tumor shrinkage with the UVA vaccine plus a PD-1 antibody (the kind contained in Keytruda) than expected for the PD-1 antibody alone.
Slingluff serves as the Joseph Helms Farrow Professor of Surgery at UVA Health, vice chair for research in surgery, director of the UVA Cancer Center’s Human Immune Therapy Center and co-director of the Focused Ultrasound Cancer Immunotherapy Center at UVA.
He answered UVA Today’s questions about skin cancer vaccines and the progress of his own lab.
Q. What is your reaction to the Moderna-Merck announcement?
A. It is exciting to see the promising news release about the personalized cancer vaccine from Moderna combined with the PD-1 antibody from Merck in patients at high risk for recurrence. This certainly can be expected to boost enthusiasm for cancer vaccines in general.
Q. How do skin cancer vaccines work?
A. They induce immune responses to proteins, or portions of proteins, on the surface of melanoma cells. Those immune responses are mediated by white blood cells called “T cells,” which are capable of recognizing and killing melanoma cells.