Thousands of NHS patients to access trials of personalised cancer ‘vaccines’

Thousands of cancer patients in England are set to gain fast-tracked access to trials of personalised cancer vaccines following the launch of a world-leading NHS trial “matchmaking” service to help find new life-saving treatments.

The NHS has announced that it has treated its first patient in England with a personalised vaccine against their bowel cancer, in a clinical trial part of NHS England’s new Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad. In a national first, father-of-four Elliot Phebve received the developmental jab at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, one of several sites taking part in the colorectal cancer vaccine trial sponsored by BioNTech SE.

The German biotechnology company has recently presented new preliminary data at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference in Chicago on how measuring circulating tumour DNA could potentially help early detection of colorectal cancer. The vaccine trial involving Elliot is one of several that will be taking place in NHS trusts across the country to treat different types of cancer. Thousands more patients are expected to benefit from NHS England’s new Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad, which will enable those wanting to participate in clinical trials to be fast-tracked to one of the nearest participating hospitals.

Patients who agree to take part have a sample of their cancer tissue and a blood test taken. If they meet a clinical trial’s eligibility criteria, they can be referred to their nearest participating NHS site, meaning patients from hospitals across the country will find it easier than ever to take part in groundbreaking research.

The investigational cancer vaccines evaluated in the colorectal cancer trial are based on mRNA – the same technology used for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine – and are created by analysing a patient’s tumour to identify mutations specific to their own cancer. Using this information, medics then create an experimental individualised cancer vaccine.

The developmental vaccines are designed to induce an immune response that may prevent cancer from returning after surgery on the primary tumour, by stimulating the patient’s immune system to specifically recognise and potentially destroy any remaining cancer cells.

The investigational cancer vaccines being jointly developed by biopharmaceutical companies BioNTech and Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, are still undergoing trials and have not yet been approved by regulators.

Higher-education lecturer Elliot, 55, had no cancer symptoms and was diagnosed through a routine health check with his GP. Following blood tests, he was immediately invited to Manor Hospital in Walsall and triaged to a hospital ward to receive blood transfusions. A computed tomography (CT) scan and a colonoscopy confirmed he had colon cancer and Eliott had surgery to remove the tumour and 30 cm of his large intestine. He was then referred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham for initial rounds of chemotherapy and to take part in a clinical trial.

Eliott said: “Taking part in this trial tallies with my profession as a lecturer, and as a community-centred person. I want to impact other people’s lives positively and help them realise their potential.

“Through the potential of this trial, if it is successful, it may help thousands, if not millions of people, so they can have hope, and may not experience all I have gone through. I hope this will help other people.”

Thirty hospitals in England are already signed up to the pioneering Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad – one of the biggest projects of its kind in the world – with more sites joining the platform over the coming months.

The scheme aims to expand and work with a range of partners in the pharmaceutical industry to include patients across many cancer types who could potentially join a vaccine trial, such as those with pancreatic and lung cancer.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “Seeing Elliot receive his first treatment as part of the Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad is a landmark moment for patients and the health service as we seek to develop better and more effective ways to stop this disease.

“Thanks to advances in care and treatment, cancer survival is at an all-time high in this country, but these vaccine trials could one day offer us a way of vaccinating people against their own cancer to help save more lives.

“The NHS is in a unique position to deliver this kind of world-leading research at size and scale, and as more of these trials get up and running at hospitals across the country, our national match-making service will ensure as many eligible patients as possible get the opportunity to access them.”

Trials have already enlisted dozens of patients, although the majority of participants are expected to be enrolled from 2026 onwards.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS national clinical director for cancer at the NHS said: “We know that even after a successful operation, cancers can sometimes return because a few cancer cells are left in the body, but using a vaccine to target those remaining cells may be a way to stop this happening.

“Access to clinical trials could provide another option for patients and their families, and I’m delighted that through our national launch pad we will be widening the opportunities to be part of these trials for many more people, with thousands of patients expected to be recruited in the next year.”

Principal Investigator for the trial at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Dr Victoria Kunene, said: “The investigational cancer vaccines are based on mRNA and are created by analysing a patient’s tumour to identify mutations specific to their own cancer. Using this information, we can create an individualised investigational cancer vaccine, but it is too early yet to say if these will be successful, though we are extremely hopeful. Based on the limited data we currently have of the in-body response to the vaccine, this could prove to be a significant and positive development for patients, but more data is yet needed and we continue to recruit suitable patients to the trial to establish this further.”

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