NEW CANAAN, CT—Thirty-five leading cancer vaccine researchers met to consider medical progress in treating cancer with vaccines during a three-day meeting convened by New Canaan’s Sabin Vaccine Institute (Sabin) held this past June. The seventh annual Sabin Colloquium on Cancer Vaccines and Immunotherapy convened at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Genome Research Center on Long Island, New York on June 21-24, giving the researchers a chance to report their progress and potentially generate new insights in using vaccine technologies to treat cancer’s many forms.

The biomedical research departments at several of the nation’s leading universities and institutions abroad were represented among the participants, as were pharmaceutical companies, nongovernmental organizations, members of biological research institutes and government research laboratories. This year’s colloquium was co-chaired by Hyam Levitsky, MD, professor of oncology, medicine, urology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University, and Stephen Schoenberger, PhD, associate member in the Division of Cellular Immunology, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.

“Our goal was to bring together some of the best minds in the basic and clinical sciences from both academia and industry, all focusing on the problems and opportunities in developing cancer immunotherapies,” Levitsky said. He is a proponent of the meeting format, which is unlike many large professional or scientific conferences. “In this intimate setting, everybody contributes, and everybody learns. The meeting has really become a benchmark in the field.” Levitsky is among the leading myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma cancer researchers internationally.

A keynote address by Antonio Lanzavecchia, director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Bellinzona, Switzerland, introduced the meeting and explored vaccination and immunological memory. Traditional pediatric vaccines—like those for polio and measles— provide protective immunity before the disease occurs, averting its full impact. Cancer vaccines seek to boost the immune system and are used after disease onset; therefore, they currently remain therapeutic rather than preventive and are often referred to as “immunotherapies” rather than vaccines. Their goal is to produce strong anti-tumor immunity in order to combat cancer cells, shrinking or delaying growth of tumors and initiating periods of remission and improved quality of life, while avoiding the traumatic side effects associated with surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

Presentations at the meeting considered such topics as the biological barriers to the induction of effective anti-tumor immunity, immunologic features of the tumor microenvironment, and a report on the status of cancer vaccine clinical trials. Advances in the development of therapies were reported by researchers from Sanofi Pasteur, Argos Therapeutics, Dendreon, Medarex, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Robert Allen, MD, special advisor to the Sabin chairman, participated in the meeting and is excited about the topic and medical possibilities. “What most people are not aware of is that vaccines are now being developed to treat certain cancers. This form of treatment is new and revolutionary in that the reason the body does not automatically attack a tumor is that the tumor is composed of the exact same materials as the body. Therefore for the body to attack cancer would mean that the body would have to attack itself. This process of the body attacking itself does not ordinarily happen in a healthy person.” He explained that scientists are now able to take certain miniscule pieces of the tumor to a research lab, modify it, and place it back into the body to coax the body to fight the tumor.

Sabin Chairman H.R. Shepherd convened the first Cancer Vaccine Colloquium in 1999 and has since launched a consortium of commercial biotechnology companies who are intrigued by the possibilities of vaccines being used to treat cancer. The first cancer vaccines are treating patients in various studies now underway and the hope is that doctors will soon be able to recommend vaccines as cancer treatments. “The Sabin Vaccine Institute has taken a leading role in cancer vaccines,” Shepherd said. “The potential for cancer cures with vaccines is as great as has been the success of vaccines in preventing infectious diseases. We don’t want to let time go by when treatments are waiting to be discovered and made available to the public.”