"It's really promising, and the fact you get not only three areas, but areas outside the field [of treatment with radiation] is really significant", said Dr. Silvia Formenti, chairwoman of radiation oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, who was not involved in the study and is working on a similar treatment. These distorted cells often form tumors that can spread, making it hard to treat.
"We're injecting two immune stimulants right into one single tumor", Brody said.
It jump-starts so-called dendritic cells, which activate immune responses. The second activated such cells, which then instructed T cells (also called the immune system's "soldiers") to get rid of the cancer cells without harming the healthy ones. When the treatment was applied to lab mice, it showed a higher success rate for checkpoint blockade immunotherapy, which is needed to achieve total remission. "Lead study author Dr. Joshua Brody, director of the Lymphoma Immunotherapy Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in NY explained, "[We're] seeing tumors all throughout the body melting away".
The procedure was conducted on patients with advanced-stage lymphoma who were also part of some trials involving head and neck and breast cancer.
Essentially, the method turns the injected tumor into a cancer vaccine factory, the researchers explained. In this case, the treatment teaches the body to recognize tumors and attack them.
After decades of trying and failing to create cancer vaccines, researchers are feeling more hopeful after new promising research on immunotherapy.
"Generals don't really fight wars, they make the plans", Brody said. Researchers now hope to train the body's immune system to fight disease.
While promising, the effect was observed in only three people and will need to be tested in larger trials before even going before the Food and Drug Administration for review.
Dr. Catherine Diefenbach, director of clinical lymphoma at the NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center in New York City, said the vaccine approach is "novel and extremely interesting", and could help explain why checkpoint inhibitors usually don't help patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Patients first received nine daily injections of an immune stimulant meant to "recruit" dendritic cells by teaching them how to recognize cancerous cells, the study authors said.
This research was funded by The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the Cancer Research Institute, and Merck. Celldex and Oncovir provided reagents for the clinical trial and the lab work.