Five-year research partnership targets breast cancer vaccine

Imagine if no one died from breast cancer…if we stopped it in its tracks, so it couldn’t spread and kill.

That’s the aim of a new five-year research partnership between Breast Cancer Foundation NZ and Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University in Wellington.

The first project in the new BCFNZ Ferrier Breast Cancer Research Programme will see Ferrier’s team of world-leading carbohydrate chemists, headed by Professor Richard Furneaux, pouring its considerable skills into developing a “therapeutic vaccine” for breast cancer.

Unlike regular vaccines given to healthy people to prevent disease developing, a therapeutic vaccine will stimulate a patient’s own immune system to attack and destroy breast cancer cells. Excitingly, the first use of such a vaccine is likely to be in patients with currently incurable cancer that has spread beyond the breast, or in those whose tumours are resistant to existing treatments and likely to spread. (Almost all breast cancer deaths are the result of the cancer spreading; whereas cancer that’s confined to the breast can be treated successfully).

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ has pledged an initial $500,000 to the BCFNZ Ferrier Breast Cancer Research Programme, which will focus on bringing new drugs – starting with a therapeutic vaccine – to the clinical trial stage. The partnership will run for at least five years.

“We went looking for a research partner who would give us the best shot of moving toward our vision of zero deaths from breast cancer,” said Evangelia Henderson, chief executive at BCFNZ. “We were blown away by the calibre of the Ferrier team, the work they’d already done in the exciting field of immunotherapy and vaccines, and the strength of their international partnerships. It was a no-brainer for us.”

The Breast Cancer Foundation will, as usual, be relying on the generosity of its donors and corporate supporters to fund this new research partnership, and Evangelia Henderson is hopeful that the Foundation’s Pink Ribbon Breakfast fundraising campaign, held in May, will be a big boost to its funds available for research. “This is a great chance to get in on the ground floor of new drug development right here in New Zealand. There are no guarantees in research, and it’s always a long haul, but we feel that Ferrier is ideally placed to turn the vaccine vision into reality. We’ll be looking to raise funds to ensure their work is well resourced to go full speed ahead.”

Ferrier’s successful immunotherapy treatment platform has already led to the establishment of biotechnology company Avalia Immunotherapies, which aims to commercialise vaccine technology to help New Zealanders. Avalia’s CEO isDr Shivali Gulab, a former NZBIO Young Bioscientist of the Year who is based in New York and driving the progress of Ferrier’s vaccine technology towards human clinical trials. Ferrier Research Institute has had a 20-year working relationship with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, which has resulted in successful drug trials, including current trials in leukaemia and lymphoma.

“Our vision is zero deaths from breast cancer. That can’t happen without significant investment in game-changing areas, and right now vaccines are top of the list,” said Evangelia Henderson. “We’re so grateful to all our supporters who helped make this programme possible, and who will be as excited as we are about the fantastic work at Ferrier.”

Ferrier Institute director Professor Richard Furneaux says the technology for synthetic cancer vaccines is almost there. “We just need to get it to the next level of testing—human clinical trials.”

Professor Gavin Painter, who leads the chemistry team at Ferrier, says the support of BCFNZ is crucial. “Getting a new therapy to human clinical trials requires significant investment, and an intensive campaign of chemistry, biology and regulatory compliance.”

Richard Furneaux, Gavin Painter and BCFNZ discuss the partnership on video.


Why not fund a preventative vaccine for breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a complex disease with many different factors affecting individual patients. Researchers do not believe that a vaccine to prevent breast cancer developing in the first place is a realistic prospect in the near future.

What’s the difference between a therapeutic vaccine and other immunotherapies like Herceptin or Keytruda?
Immunotherapy was described by Science journal as “the breakthrough of the year” in 2013. There are four main types of immunotherapies, and of these, therapeutic vaccines are considered by many researchers to be the most exciting. The four most common immunotherapies are:

  • Therapeutic cancer vaccines, designed to stimulate the patient’s own immune system to attack tumor cells.
  • Monoclonal antibodies, including the breast cancer drugs Herceptin and Perjeta, typically block the signalling pathways need for tumour growth, triggering an immune response that kills cancer cells or prevents the formation of the new blood vessels needed to feed a tumour.
  • Checkpoint inhibitors, such as the melanoma drugs Keytruda and Opdivo recently approved in NZ, disable the “checkpoints” in tumours that help them evade detection by the immune system. When you disable the checkpoint, the immune system has a better chance of detecting and attacking cancer cells.
  • Cytokine therapy has been explored with some success in kidney cancers and melanoma, and there is evidence that cytokines (proteins that control communication between cells of the immune system) play a role in the development and spread of breast cancer, linked to inflammation.