While Merck KGaA has dropped its troubled lung cancer vaccine program after a failed attempt to revive it, another contender in the field has emerged. Asterias Biotherapeutics, a subsidiary of California-based BioTime ($BTX), is teaming up with nonprofit Cancer Research UK to trial an immunotherapy vaccine to treat patients with non-small cell lung cancer.
Under the agreement, Cancer Research UK will conduct Phase I and II trials in the U.K. of Asterias' novel immunotherapy treatment AST-VAC2, a non-patient-specific, or allogeneic, cancer vaccine. The jab is intended to stimulate the body's immune system to attack telomerase, a protein that is expressed in over 95% of cancers but is rarely expressed in healthy adult cells.
The vaccine's design is based on a similar, patient-specific one by Asterias meant to treat prostate cancer and acute myeloid leukemia, called AST-VAC1, which was derived from patients' blood cells. AST-VAC1 showed promise in an early trial.
Unlike AST-VAC1 and other patient-specific vaccines that are developed using a patient's own cells, AST-VAC2 is derived from human embryonic stem cells. According to Asterias, the benefit of this type of vaccine is that eventually, it could be produced on a large scale and stored ready for use. In contrast, patient-specific vaccines have to be specially made for each patient.
The trial will evaluate the safety and toxicity of the vaccine as well as its ability to stimulate patient immune responses to telomerase and AST-VAC2. Researchers will administer the vaccine both to patients with early-stage lung cancer in which the tumor has been removed surgically and to patients with advanced forms of the disease.
Merck's struggles with Stimuvax underline the challenges with cancer vaccines, which have seen a string of late-stage setbacks and outright flops, with many experimental therapies only exhibiting modest increases in survival. But failures in the cancer vaccine space have not yet deterred some smaller companies, like Asterias, which are stepping up to try out their candidates.
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