Dana-Farber Scientists Receive Stand Up To Cancer Grant

The grant will go towards research for a novel vaccine for HPV-associated cancers.

Two Dana-Farber Cancer Institute scientists, Dr. Ellis Reinherz and Dr. Robert Haddad, have received a grant from Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and the Farrah Fawcett Foundation to lead a research team in developing and testing new vaccines for patients with cancers linked to human papillomavirus (HPV).

The three-year, $1.2 million research grant, will focus on cancers of the cervix, anus, and head and neck that are driven by HPV. According to Dana-Farber reps, this research will represent a new approach to harnessing the immune system as a means of attacking and destroying HPV-associated cancers.

“Globally, there are approximately 700,000 new cancers per year that are due to HPV infection,” Reinherz said. “Current vaccines can prevent HPV infection from taking place in unexposed individuals, but they don’t offer protection to those who have already been exposed and are at risk of developing a tumor. Our vaccine is uniquely designed to attack the cancers even after tumor formation and, importantly, without causing collateral damage in normal tissues.”

Reinherz’s approach “seeks to rouse immune system T cells to attack cancer cells resulting from an HPV infection,” according to a report from Dana-Farber. This is different than conventional vaccines which spur the body to produce antibodies that attack viruses and bacteria.

Here’s a breakdown of the technology pioneered by Reinherz and Haddad.

[Reinherz and Haddad developed a] technology that makes it possible to find specific identification tags, called peptides, on the surface of cancer cells that are different from those on normal cells. The tags incite T cells to attack and kill the cancer once the T cells have been “trained” to do so by vaccination. The researchers identified one tag in particular that is the basis of a new therapeutic vaccine. The Stand Up To Cancer grant will support a clinical trial to test the vaccine in patients with HPV-related cancers.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a steady and significant increase in the number of patients with head and neck cancers related to HPV16 [one strain of HPV],” Haddad said. “These patients are generally young, have young families, and often present with locally advanced disease. Our study will focus on all patients with HPV-driven cancers that have relapsed after their initial therapy. These patients have few therapeutic options today, and we aim to provide a new and targeted approach to improving outcomes for them.”

The researchers plan to use the technology to identify other peptides for vaccines that will target other virus-related cancers. They also hope to identify the T cell receptors that produce the most potent immune system response — work that may one day enable doctors to alter patients’ immune cells in the lab for use as a cancer treatment.