Biodesign aims to prevent cancer
Biodesign Institute researchers have received nearly $9 million in grants to develop a preventive vaccine against cancer.
Stephen Albert Johnston, director of the institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine, will focus his research project on breast cancer. Johnston is one of just two recipients in the nation bestowed with a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the Department of Defense’s Innovator Award, funded through its Breast Cancer Research Program. His Biodesign research colleague, Douglas Lake, will lead a three-year, $1.2 million project from the W. M. Keck Foundation to take the basic technology and determine whether it can be applied to several other forms of cancer.
The grants mark the first major federal and private awards for such an approach and ramp up a cancer research collaborative initiative with the Mayo Clinic.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, with an estimated 1.45 million cases of cancer diagnosed this year. More than 560,000 people will die from the disease.
Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of death in women. The Department of Defense, using appropriations from a congressionally directed medical research program, has sought to eradicate breast cancer by funding innovative, high-impact research through a partnership of scientists and consumers. The Innovator Award recognizes individuals who have a “history of visionary scholarship, leadership and creativity.”
“Breast cancer’s course is often long and devastating and, despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, one in five women still succumb to the disease,” Johnston says. “It’s time to fundamentally rethink how we approach this problem. Our goal, based on some promising preliminary results, is to see if we can make a vaccine that would be given to all adult women to prevent the occurrence of breast cancer.”
Johnston notes that the most successful medical intervention in history has been the development of vaccines against infectious disease.
“Developing a cancer vaccine would be the perfect solution, not only in eliminating cancer mortality, but also potentially some of the costs of diagnosis and treatment,” he says.
The W.M. Keck Foundation Award will further push the boundaries of cancer vaccine research by laying the groundwork for breakthrough discoveries to broaden the team’s approach to other cancers.
“It’s been well-established that cancers create foreign proteins that the immune system can recognize,” says Douglas Lake, who will lead the Keck Foundation project. “If we could pre-immunize an individual with a collection of proteins that effectively represent any foreign protein that a breast tumor would produce, the immune system would arm itself against breast cancer. And, if the platform technology proves successful, it could be applied to other cancers.”
The Biodesign Institute duo will lead a highly interdisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians, which involves renowned collaborators from other institutions, including Laurence Miller, Mayo Clinic director for research, and Richard Smith, chief scientist at Pacific Northwest National Labs.
The research team, using the latest advances in genomics, proteomics and immunology, wants to find a number of common signatures that occur across a wide spectrum of breast tumors.
“This has truly been a collaborative effort, with significant contributions from both organizations,” Miller says. “I am thrilled that this is going forward, and am also pleased to see this important project launching our joint efforts in the Mayo Clinic/ASU Center for Cancer-related Convergence, Cooperation and Collaboration (MAC5).”
The research work will be performed at the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine and Mayo Clinic’s new Collaborative Research Building. This project is the first major initiative undertaken under the MAC5 umbrella partnership.
Earlier, the organizations invested seed funds including private funding from Mayo and ASU funding made possible by the Arizona voter-approved Proposition 301 Technology Research and Infrastructure Fund (TRIF). The funds allowed Johnston’s team to launch the project and obtain the initial supportive data. Space has been allocated at research facilities at the Biodesign Institute and on the Scottsdale campus of Mayo Clinic, with additional faculty and clinicians being hired to support the project.
To find common elements in breast cancer and other tumors, the research team will use patient and normal samples from extensive tissue banks at the Mayo Clinic. The team will develop new techniques to identify small protein fragments, or peptides, found in breast cancer cell lines and primary tumors.
“The key is that these peptides have to trigger an immune response against breast tumors, but not in normal cells,” Johnston says.
Johnston knows demonstrating this approach will be a significant challenge. But he has been encouraged by recent mouse studies in his lab, which have identified peptides that have shown protection against breast cancer. Lake is advancing these preliminary mouse studies by identifying peptides from human tumors that are candidates for a cancer vaccine.
“We believe the technology and knowledge base now exists to determine whether or not this idea is feasible,” Johnston says. “If we are successful in our approach, we hope to bring a vaccine candidate to clinical trials by the end of the grant period.”
Joe Caspermeyer, email@example.com