Research is a balance of science, divergent thinking and pushing past failure. This combination, along with a strong partnership, led a Sanford Health research team to develop a new vaccine that may treat not just a single cancer but multiple cancers.
One virus, several cancers
Head and neck cancer is likely not the first thing that comes to most people’s mind when they hear “human papillomavirus” (HPV). But a single strain of HPV, called HPV 16, is often responsible for many cancers besides just cervical cancer. One of these is head and neck cancer.
Dan Vermeer co-invented a new vaccine for head and neck cancer patients. This vaccine, called HPV16 E6/E7, is different than most of the other vaccines out there. This includes the current HPV vaccines recommended for young adults.
Current HPV vaccines are designed to build immunity against the HPV virus by allowing the body to develop antibodies prior to HPV exposure. This is very effective at preventing HPV infection. However, if someone has already been infected with the HPV virus, the current vaccine is not beneficial for preventing cancer.
Often, changes to a person’s cells due to HPV infection do not occur until several decades after infection. This limits current HPV vaccines from preventing cancer in a large portion of the population that has already been exposed to the virus.
A team of Sanford Health researchers that focuses on cancer biology wanted to bridge this gap and find a way to help patients who have already received an HPV-positive cancer diagnosis.
The birth of an answer
Typically, the immune system works by detecting, fighting and “clearing” an infection. But sometimes viruses like HPV persist, living within cells and hiding from the immune system. Years or decades later, the HPV virus uses its own viral DNA, called viral oncogenes, to take over parts of the infected cell responsible for cellular division. In this way, HPV infected cells begin to divide continually, eventually forming a tumor.
During a lab meeting, the group started brainstorming the idea of developing a vaccine that didn’t attack the HPV virus itself but would instead promote an immune response against the HPV-infected cancer cells. That is, a vaccine that would be effective after the HPV-positive tumor had already formed.
The viral oncogenes E6 and E7 are the main contributors necessary for causing HPV-infected cells to become cancerous. These are the two viral oncogenes that the HPV16 E6/E7 vaccine targets. Preclinical studies suggest, when used in combination with standard of care chemotherapy and radiation or newly developed immunotherapies, the vaccine may improve the clearance of HPV-positive cancer and decrease tumor growth.
Vermeer and his colleagues on the project contribute its creation to their strong teamwork and passion for patients. Between the ups and downs, the successes and failures, they supported one another to find a solution.