BUENOS AIRES – Argentine writer Julio Cortazar once wrote: “Hope belongs to life, it is life defending itself.” This sentiment accompanies news of the first therapeutic vaccine against advanced lung cancer available to patients, which was discovered by an Argentine research team.
Indeed, Argentina will be the first country where the vaccine, called “Racotumomab,” will be available starting in July after it was approved by Argentina’s National Administration of Medicines, Food and Medical Technology (ANMAT).
The vaccine does not prevent lung cancer. It is meant as a complement to conventional therapies such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and helps combat the cancer by activating the body’s immune system. As such, it will help treat one of the toughest cancers, which causes 9,000 deaths per year in Argentina alone. It was designed and developed in Argentina with the participation of Cuban researchers over the past 18 years.
“When we started researching, our goal was to develop biological therapies that use the body’s immune system to fight cancer. We thought the product would be ready in five years, but it was much more difficult than we imagined. Still, we continued on. When we look back today, we can see it’s been a long road,” said Silvia Gold, co-head of the Grupo Insud, the consortium that developed the vaccine.
The consortium involves researchers from the public and private sector, including the Quilmes National University, Angel Roffo Institute of Oncology, Garrahan Pediatric Hospital, CONICET, Buenos Aires University, the Center of Molecular Immunology in Cuba, and Argentinian pharmaceutical company Elea Laboratories.
Mimicking the tumor’s antigens
Since the beginning of the project to the completion of clinical trials, more than 100 people from different fields have been involved – from molecular biologists to clinical oncologists. It is now patented in Argentina, the European Union, and the United States. It will soon be available in Brazil and other Latin American countries, as well as, India, Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia among others.
It all began with the study of substances called antigens, which are only found in human tumors. Given that they are not found in healthy cells, researchers thought that they could be targeted in a therapy to defeat tumors and prevent their dissemination. From then on, the researchers concentrated on the development of a vaccine that could awaken the immune response in cancer patients and attack cancer cells. They made it so that the immune system would start to recognize the tumors as “strangers.”
The vaccine is an antibody that mimics the tumor’s antigens. Thus, “it makes the immune system work and act against the tumor, without affecting healthy cells. It produces cells and antibodies targeted against the tumor cells. This was demonstrated through in vitro and mice studies. We then went on to the clinical trials with volunteers in three stages,” explained Daniel Alonso, director of molecular oncology at the University of Quilmes and scientific director of the consortium that developed this vaccine.
Clinical trials involving 600 patients showed that the therapeutic vaccine can triple the percentage of patients who live two years after its application, compared to the control group that only received radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Besides the ANMAT’s approval for its commercialization, the vaccine will be presented by Elea’s medical director Roberto Gomez at the annual congress for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.