John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center said Friday that it is the only site in New Jersey, and one of just 17 in the country, participating in a multicenter international Phase II study of an innovative personalized cancer vaccine being evaluated in combination with pembrolizumab immunotherapy in patients with melanoma that has been surgically removed but has a high risk of coming back.
The expectation is that the vaccine can prime a patient’s immune system to be more responsive to immunotherapy and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.
Utilizing a novel and potentially revolutionary gene-based technology, the vaccine is created by comparing the patient’s normal cell DNA sequence to that of their tumor and identifying tumor-specific changes to the DNA. Once identified, the patient-specific, tumor-specific changes are turned into a messenger RNA construct to be used as a vaccine.
Pembrolizumab belongs to a class of drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors,” which have transformed the treatment of melanoma. It works by blocking a protein called PD-1 which normally shuts down the immune response. Cancer cells use PD-1 to hide from the immune system. Inhibiting PD-1 enables the immune system to find and kill cancer cells.
“Pembrolizumab and other checkpoint inhibitors have been shown to reduce disease recurrence among patients with high-risk melanoma that was surgically removed. However, in many patients, the cancer eventually comes back,” said Dr. Andrew Pecora, a nationally recognized hematologist/oncologist at John Theurer Cancer Center and associate dean, Technology and Innovation, Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University, who is a principal investigator (PI) of the study.
“Reducing the rate of relapse would address a significant unmet medical need for these patients,” Pecora said.