A Vaccine to Simultaneously Kill, Prevent Brain Cancer?

Cell therapy engineered to eliminate established tumors, train immune system to prevent cancer recurrence

Illustration of malignant cancer cells
Malignant cancer cells. Image: koto_feja/ Getty Images E+ Collection


Scientists are harnessing a new way to turn cancer cells into potent anticancer agents.

In the latest work from the lab of Khalid Shah, professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, investigators have developed a new cell therapy approach to eliminate established tumors and induce long-term immunity, training the immune system so that it can prevent cancer from recurring.

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In this early research, the team tested their dual-action, cancer-killing vaccine in an advanced mouse model of the deadly brain cancer glioblastoma, with promising results. Findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.

“Our team has pursued a simple idea: to take cancer cells and transform them into cancer killers and vaccines,” said corresponding author Shah, who is also director of the Center for Stem Cell and Translational Immunotherapy and vice chair of research in the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s as well as a faculty member at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

“Using gene engineering, we are repurposing cancer cells to develop a therapeutic that kills tumor cells and stimulates the immune system to both destroy primary tumors and prevent cancer,” Shah said.

Cancer vaccines are an active area of research for many labs, but the approach that Shah and his colleagues have taken is distinct. Instead of using inactivated tumor cells, the team repurposes living tumor cells, which possess an unusual feature.

Like homing pigeons returning to roost, living tumor cells will travel long distances across the brain to return to the site of their fellow tumor cells. Taking advantage of this unique property, Shah’s team engineered living tumor cells using the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 and repurposed them to release a tumor cell killing agent.