Vaccine for asbestos-related cancer shows promise

An investigational vaccine for the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma is safe, according to a new study cited in a press release March 4 from the American Thoracic Society.

Researchers in the Netherlands tested the vaccine — which infuses a patient's dendritic cells with antigen from his or her tumor — on 10 people and found that it induced an immune T-cell response against mesothelioma tumors.

This is the first time DC-based immunotherapy has been tested in patients with mesothelioma, which typically occurs in the lungs but can arise elsewhere. The study was published online March 4 in advance of an upcoming print issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Asbestos has been banned in developed countries for decades, but the incidence of mesothelioma is expected to continue to increase until 2020. Median survival after diagnosis is about 12 months. The standard chemotherapy treatment improves survival by about three months.

"The possibility to harness the potency and specificity of the immune system underlies the growing interest in cancer immunotherapy," study author Dr. Joachim Aerts, a pulmonary physician at Erasmus Medical Center, said in a news release. "One such approach uses the patient's own [dendritic cells] to present tumor-associated antigens and thereby generate tumor-specific immunity."

It's not a vaccine in the traditional sense: It doesn't prevent disease. But like any vaccine, it triggers the immune system to attack an intruder, in this case, the cancerous cells.

Dendritic cells are a form of immune system cell.

"The major problem in mesothelioma is that the immunosuppressive environment caused by the tumor will negatively influence our therapy so we are now working on a method to lower this immunosuppressive environment," Aerts said.

"We hope that by further development of our method it will be possible to increase survival in patients with mesothelioma and eventually vaccinate persons who have been in contact with asbestos to prevent them from getting asbestos-related diseases."