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Lung cancer hope: £1.7m in funding for world-first lung cancer vaccine

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute are seeking to create a vaccination that could be used preventatively in people that are at high risk of lung cancer.

By Rachel Millar

Globally, lung cancer is the deadliest of all cancers, accounting for the highest mortality rates for both men and women of all cancer types. In the UK, nearly 50,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed every year making it the third most common type of cancer. Fewer than 10 per cent of people with lung cancer will survive for more than 10 years with the disease. Smoking is the biggest single cause of lung cancer with 79 per cent of lung cancer cases being preventable. It disproportionately affects people from the most deprived communities who also suffer the worst outcomes due to health inequalities. But there is some hope on the horizon. A team in Oxford have just been awarded £1.7 million in funding from Cancer Research UK and the CRIS Cancer Foundation to develop a vaccine. 

Cancer vaccines work similarly to other vaccines by stimulating the immune system to recognise the pathogen, in this case cancer cells and attack them. In this way, cancer vaccines are highly specific, targeting the cancer cells without compromising other cells unlike other treatments such as chemotherapy. These cancer vaccines can be used as a treatment when someone has been diagnosed to shrink the tumour and can provide protection from recurrence, however there are also vaccines that are used preventatively.  

The multi-centre team led by researchers at the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute and are seeking to create a vaccination that could be used preventatively in people that are at high risk of the disease. The technology is similar to the COVID Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and uses proteins from the surface of the cancer cells known as neoantigens. These are proteins that are embedded in the cell surface of the tumour cells but are not on normal somatic cells as they have arisen from mutations in the cancer cells DNA during the tumour growth. When these neoantigens are injected or introduced into the body they train the immune system to recognise them as abnormal and therefore the immune system is able to recognise the neoantigen on the abnormal lung cells surface and attack these cancer cells specifically.  

It is still early days for this research as scientists need to first use lab testing to establish if the neoantigens successfully triggers the immune system. If the results are positive, however, the vaccine will move straight to clinical trials and researchers believe that the vaccine could help prevent around 90 per cent of all lung cancers.

In an interview with Cancer Research UK, Professor Tim Elliott, research lead for the LungVax project said, “Cancer is a disease of our own bodies and it’s hard for the immune system to distinguish between what’s normal and what’s cancer. Getting the immune system to recognise and attack cancer is one of the biggest challenges in cancer research today. If we can replicate the kind of success seen in trials during the pandemic, we could save the lives of tens of thousands of people every year in the UK alone.” 

If the vaccine gets to clinical trial, it is likely to be available for those at high risk, including current and ex-smokers aged 55-74. This group also currently qualifies for targeted lung health checks in some areas (particularly Britain’s most deprived regions which typically have the worst lung cancer outcomes) and there has been some good news from these early diagnostic checks.  

And, there’s further hope from the lung cancer data as new statistics have emerged that have shown that more people from deprived communities are being diagnosed earlier. The data shows that in 2022 more than a third (34.5 per cent) of those diagnosed with lung cancer from the most deprived fifth of England were at stage one or two. This is a jump from 30 per cent in 2019 and may be thanks to targeted lung health checks. Mobile lung ‘MOTs’ were introduced in community settings such as supermarket carparks in 2018 in the areas with the highest incidence of lung cancer. This has been expanded to other areas and the data suggests it is having an impact.  

Now, the NHS has partnered the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation on a new campaign to improve earlier cancer detection by encouraging people to take up the potentially lifesaving scan if offered it. The community vans have already diagnosed over 1750 people with lung cancer and three quarters of those diagnosed were caught at stage one or two, compared with just a third caught at early stages in 2018.

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