Vaccines are powerful. Personalized vaccines to cure cancer are yet to come but they’re not far off.
At the same time, vaccines are under appreciated and ignored. It is startling to reflect on how complacent we are about this powerful, yet simple treatment modality. We all get various vaccines but we don’t realize how lucky we are.
Smallpox, according to Wikipedia, killed 300-500 million men, women and children in the 20th Century alone. Today it kills how many?. None. Zero. What changed? Hard working medical scientists invented a harmless looking pin prick called a vaccine. It has saved hundreds of millions of lives from the deadly smallpox.
Almost painless, forgettable vaccines for TB, tetanus, polio, etc that you received as a young child are probably protecting you right now.
So why did no one think of a vaccine for cancer?
Well. They certainly did. To be in cancer research is to recognize how long we have been searching for cancer vaccines, both for prevention and for treatment. Just in the past few years, over one hundred cancer vaccine trials have been conducted in the US. None has been fantastically successful, though clinical studies have shown that cancer vaccines can induce your immune system to better recognize and fight cancer. But these vaccines are still weak and transient in their effect.
That means even after fifty years of study, vaccines always seem to be just out of reach. One reason we don’t already have a vaccine is that scientists have not been sure how one might work, given the many forms of cancer. Smallpox virus in each patient is exactly the same. But cancer in each patient is different. How could one vaccine ever work for everyone? However, now we have two new tools to improve our chances: improved DNA sequencing and massive computing power.
These new tools make it possible to get a glimpse at what is different about every person. Massive parallel and distributed computing can now determine a person’s genes, gene expression and genetic mutations.
What do we do with so much data on just one person? We use artificial intelligence to develop a personalized medicine solution for each patient. I believe that we can cure colon cancer, using a vaccine design platform that compares the mutated DNA found only in the cancer cells to the DNA in that same patient’s normal cells. The software platform crunches massive data files and spots key differences in the DNA. Then it chooses the exact tiny proteins that algorithms predict the body’s immune system can identify, target and kill. This will be a vaccine, but it is not to prevent cancer, instead it treats people who already have cancer. We call it a “therapeutic vaccine”. The vaccine designed by the software will be synthesized and administered to the patient. If it works, that patient’s body will suddenly learn how to fight their exact cancer cells and then eradicate the cancer from their body.
Many teams are trying to make this work. A team of researchers from Montreal had a major breakthrough by concentrating on non-coding DNA. DNA is the blueprint to build a human. It stores the design to build all types of cells in our bodies. However unlike the parts of DNA that most scientists study, non coding DNA or “Dark Matter of our DNA” doesn’t seem to build anything. We don’t even know why it’s there. The Montreal group relied on the non-coding DNA and developed a successful (for mice) vaccine for two different kinds of cancer, one with few mutations (leukemia) and one with many mutations (lung cancer). This led them to suspect that it was possible to treat multiple forms of cancer with a single vaccine.
Moderna (https://www.modernatx.com), a more mainstream biotechnology company went public in December 2018 and is valued at over $5bn. So I guess vaccines are not completely under appreciated. Moderna has bet its existence on vaccines for everything: they have built a sophisticated platform to create vaccines against many illnesses including cancer. They use something called mRNA. mRNA, or messenger RNA, is a family of molecules that reads the instructions in the DNA and creates a piece of protein that become part of a cell. Moderna makes synthetic pieces of mRNA that can produce any vaccine they want. And cleverly, Moderna’s synthetic mRNA produces the vaccine right inside the human body instead of in an expensive biotech factory. Moderna has profit-sharing agreements with many big pharma companies including with Merck for cancer vaccines.
Dana Farber, part of Harvard Medical School, has focused on cancer vaccine research and trials. They use software designed by Gad Getz’s team from The Broad Institute, to design their vaccines. In 2017, Dana Farber (Ott et al) published a paper on the initial feasibility, safety and success of a personal neoantigen vaccine in 6 patients with melanoma. The results were promising and a new company called Neon Therapeutics has taken their strategy forward and already gone public.
However, cancer is a tough enemy for a vaccine. Many vaccines have tried and failed. These are the opening skirmishes in using the under appreciated vaccine to train the body’s armies of T-cells to defeat cancer. Personalized medicine will, I believe, have its first glorious victory in personal vaccines that cure cancer. But we will be have to be cleverer. We will have to analyze the cancer DNA vs normal DNA better. We will have to stimulate the body’s immune system harder. We will have to climb over the tumor erected barriers to T-cells. And yes, we know what we are up against. But we do not plan to fall back or slow down. We must win this one for the sake of many friends and family members. Our software can and will design a simultaneous attack from all sides against these rapidly multiplying bad cells. And our vaccine created personal T-cell armies must grow and will kill ALL the cancer cells in each patient before they can regroup and regrow.
Roy de Souza is a serial entrepreneur having started and run successful businesses in online advertising, e-commerce and mobile healthcare. He is now working on curing colon cancer. Roy has used his experience in cloud based worldwide scalable technology in the new field of personalized medicine. He is also the founder of ZEDO, ZINC and nULTA. He previously worked as a strategy consultant in the UK at COBA, ICI and at Zip2, Elon Musk’s first company. Roy graduated with an Masters in Engineering and Economics from Oxford and an MBA from The Kellogg School of Management.