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When people hear the term cancer vaccine, they often think of prevention, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that can protect against several types of HPV known to cause cancer. But there are also vaccines used for the treatment of cancer.

One type of cancer vaccine is referred to as oncolytic virus therapy. For this treatment, a physician injects a genetically modified virus directly into a patient’s tumor. The virus then infects cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. The viral infection causes the cancer cells to break down and die, which releases proteins that trigger the immune system to target any remaining cancer cells.

Currently, there is only one oncolytic virus therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Talimogene laherparepvec, also known as T-VEC, is a genetically modified version of the herpes simplex virus that is used to treat advanced melanoma. But Moffitt Cancer Center, in collaboration with the biotechnology company Memgen, is working to develop a new cancer vaccine that could be used to treat several cancers by itself or in combination with other immunotherapies.

Led by immunologist Dr. Amer Beg, MEM-288 is an oncolytic virus that selectively kills cancer cells while revving up the immune system through the expression of two immune modulators. Preclinical research, which will be presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting, shows that MEM-288 can work as a single therapy or when combined with immune checkpoint inhibitors, which stop the immune system from turning off before cancer cells are eliminated.

Dr. Amer Beg

Dr. Amer Beg, Senior Member, Department of Immunology

“Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a great treatment option, but they do not work for everyone. Our oncolytic virus therapy may be able to help, stimulating tumors that may not typically respond to this treatment,” Beg said. “Our lab studies show that MEM-288 can work in a broad range of human solid tumor cell lines, including lung cancer.”

Based on the study results, a phase 1 study using MEM-288 to treat patients with advanced lung cancer is expected to launch later this year.