Researchers at the University of Ottawa and The Ottawa Hospital have developed a vaccine that harnesses the immune system to fight cancer.


Dr. Rebecca Auer, a cancer surgeon and researcher, is part of a team that has developed an vaccine that harnesses the immune system to fight cancer. (CBC)

So far tested only in mice, the work is part of a burgeoning field of research into how to use the immune system to fight the disease. While radiation therapy suppresses the immune system, vaccine research like this aims to activate it instead.

The vaccine is composed of tumour cells infected with a modified form of the vesicular stomatitis virus, which causes flu-like symptoms in humans.

In mice, the researchers said the vaccine stimulated the immune system to reduce and sometimes eliminate cancer.

"It basically tells the mouse's immune system what to fight," said Dr. Rebecca Auer, a cancer surgeon and associate scientist at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. "And because the virus is so foreign and it's inside those cancer cells, the immune system really wakes up and says hey, wait a second, this is something we want to attack, and it attacks not only the virus, but also the cancer cells."

Potential vaccines could be personalized to each patient

The virus essentially trains the immune system to track down the infected cancer cells, which can help destroy smaller, harder to detect instances of cancer in the body that could otherwise grow again, Auer said.

"So it's very personalized," Auer said. "Every single tumour, every patient's own tumour could in theory be mixed this way to create their own personalized vaccine.

"It's very exciting because it seems to work," she said.

Auer and John Bell, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a University of Ottawa professor, are leading the research.

Auer said a closely related vaccine is moving to clinical trials in the next year or so, and that theirs could do so in a few years if they get the necessary approvals.


Ottawa resident Paula Pert, a mother of two diagnosed with cancer before Christmas, said the idea of an immune-boosting, cancer-fighting vaccine is exciting. (CBC)

Ottawa resident Paula Pert, a mother of two, was diagnosed with cancer before Christmas. After five rounds of chemotherapy, she underwent surgery to replace a section of her femur and a hip socket.

In spite of how sick the chemotherapy made her feel, she said she was surprised by her body's resilience.

"You go for chemotherapy, and they basically fill your body with a poison that's trying to attack the cancer," Pert said. "And yet somehow my body, every time, just sort of crawls out of this and dusts itself off and I feel well again every three weeks. So it's just really shown me how truly strong the body is and how it wants to be well.

"It wants to fix itself."

She said the prospect of an immune-boosting vaccine is an exciting one.

"I think anything we can do to try and overcome cancer…in the sense of the length of time that you have to go through and the chemotherapy that's so draining and difficult, and all the logistics and the helplessness, I think would be a really good thing," Pert said.