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Scientists develop first lung cancer ‘vaccine’

Argentine and Cuban scientists have developed the world’s first lung cancer “vaccine”, that clinical trials have shown prolonged the life of three times more patients in the late stages of the disease than traditional chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.

The drug, Racotumomab, is not a vaccine in the ordinary sense. It neither prevents, nor cures, what is one of the most aggressive and hard-to-heal cancers, and one which is usually detected only when it is already very advanced. 

  However, its developers in Argentina say that the drug – the brainchild of scientists at Cuba’s Centre for Molecular Immunology – offers a novel and effective way of boosting treatment of lung cancer and hope to be selling the drug in 25 countries by 2015.

“Of course, this is not a miracle cure,” said Daniel Alonso, who has worked on the 18-year project since its infancy. “But it does provide an option so that, in combination with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, it can prolong survival significantly.”

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide, and killed some 1.7m people in 2008, according to latest World Health Organisation data.

Clinical trials on some 1,700 patients have shown that 24 per cent of late-stage lung cancer sufferers lived for two years with Racotumomab, whereas the figure was only 8 per cent on chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Phase III trials are continuing in seven countries.

Whereas those traditional treatments kill cancer cells but attack all cells, Racotumomab is one of a new breed of drugs designed to spark the body’s immune system into destroying the cancer by “unmasking” it and allowing the body to kill it, said Mr Alonso.

“This is an interesting approach to tackling a very hard-to-treat cancer, where new therapies are urgently needed,” said Professor Tim Elliott, Cancer Research UK immunology expert at the University of Southampton in southern England.

“The research and early clinical trials so far look encouraging for this experimental new treatment vaccine, although the initial results indicate the drug extends survival rather than curing the disease.

“We’ll need to wait for the results of thorough larger-scale trials to reveal if it might be able to benefit lung cancer patients and that it does not cause significant side-effects,” he added.

The researchers have found it to be most effective in patients whose tumours have been shrunk, but not eliminated, after chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and they have also tested it on people who cannot tolerate such an aggressive traditional treatment regime. But for now, at least, it is not seen as a first port of call for lung cancer sufferers.

Patients receive the vaccine over the course of a year – five individual doses, each two weeks apart, and then a maintenance dose every month, with the possibility of the same brief flu-like side-effects associated with many inoculations.

The cost per patient is $20,000, said Hugo Sigman, chief executive of Insud, the Argentine group that has put up some 60 per cent of the $100m development costs. Cuba, where the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez’s cancer was treated, has funded the rest of the development in kind. Merck, the global healthcare group, is working on a similar vaccine, Mr Sigman added.

Not all lung cancers are the same, but Racotumomab can be used in the so-called Non-Small Cell lung cancers that account for about 85 per cent of cases.

Insud hopes to recoup its investment in five years. Racotumomab is currently available in Cuba and will go on sale in Argentina on July 1. Silvia Gold, Mr Sigman’s wife, who heads the Argentine ID+i public-private research group that has worked to develop Racotumomab, said people were already phoning to ask for it.

It is expected to go on sale in Asia as well as Latin America, and the team is working on approval in Europe. However, the US is a “problem”, Mr Sigman said, because the Office of Foreign Assets Control needs to give authorisation because of the US embargo against Cuba.

The scientists believe the drug, or ones like it, could eventually have other applications – breast cancer, for example, can have the same tumour antigen as lung cancer, Mr Alonso said.


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