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Personalized cancer vaccines offer hope for a cure

For more than 20 years, Hoag Cancer Institute has been a pioneer in vaccine research and is one of only a few medical centers in the world to utilize a patient’s own tumor cells to develop personalized melanoma vaccines.
Cancer survivor Linda Rieser has become a self-proclaimed “poster-child” for the potential life-saving impact of patient-specific vaccines for melanoma cancer patients. Linda’s cancer survival story began when she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma in August 2006. She was told by her oncologist that only about 15 percent of patients with her diagnosis survive.
Upon receiving this news, Linda’s husband Bruce didn’t skip a beat and confidently proclaimed that she would be one of the 15 percent. So with her loving husband by her side, during the next 18 months, Linda underwent extensive spine surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biotherapy, gamma knife treatment for brain metastases, and multiple additional surgeries in an attempt to beat her cancer. Ten different Hoag physicians were involved in this effort. Unfortunately, every time she completed a treatment, new sites of cancer were detected. 
“My cancer was very aggressive,” shares Linda. “And despite multiple rounds of traditional cancer treatments, my cancer seemed determined to get the best of me.”
Several new growing sites of metastatic melanoma were documented at the time Linda began treatment in Hoag’s patient- specific vaccine clinical trial in an attempt to proactively teach her body how to hunt down and fight the cancer on its own. Linda first learned of the innovative vaccine trial at Hoag Cancer Institute? via To Your Health magazine, where she read the inspiring story of another melanoma patient who had successfully beaten his cancer.
“In simplest terms, personalized cancer vaccines attempt to activate the patient’s immune system into recognizing and eliminating cancer cells based on the unique molecules located on the surface of the patient’s own melanoma cells,” explains Hoag Cancer Institute Executive Medical and Scientific Director Robert O. Dillman, M.D. “The highly complex process of developing a patient-specific vaccine starts when a sample of the patient’s metastatic melanoma is delivered to Hoag’s Cell Biology Lab. There, scientists attempt to grow a purified cell line of the tumor in order to develop a patient- specific vaccine.”
Linda was thrilled to learn that Hoag researchers were able to successfully grow a cell line from her tumor, enabling her to participate in the trial. At each visit to receive vaccine therapy, Linda carried a miniature set of gold boxing gloves with her. “These little golden gloves inspired me to keep up the fight for my life,” shares Linda. Perhaps Linda has been victorious. Her response to the vaccine was all she could have hoped for. Not only did no new tumors develop, but the tumors already present within her body began to shrink, and within a year had completely disappeared. And now, three years after starting the vaccine, Linda remains completely cancer free.
“My recovery is truly a testimony to the power of prayer and to the skill of those who cared for me,” says Linda, “I can’t thank the team at Hoag enough for what they have done for me personally, and for other cancer patients. Their progressive research provides real hope for a cure, and I’m confident that studies like these will lead to even more people winning the battle against cancer in the future.”
Life-changing research
Studies indicate that some characteristics of a patient’s melanoma may be unique. This may explain why melanoma vaccines developed from a tumor other than the patient’s own specific tumor have failed to yield good results in clinical trials.
Hoag utilizes two patient-specific vaccine approaches with tumor cell lines and there are a number of long-term survivors who appear to have benefited from either approach. In recent years, it has been recognized that these self-renewing, replicating cells may be tumor stem cells, or early progenitor cells. Such cells may be the reason that despite surgery, radiation and chemotherapy to destroy visible cancer, new sites of tumor continue to appear in various parts of the body. This important discovery led to a new focus within the cancer research community on treatments that target tumor stem cells. Dr. Dillman and colleagues at Hoag Cancer Institute were ahead of their time in pursuing an approach that has become an increasing focus of cancer research.
The remarkable success associated with Hoag’s patient-specific melanoma cancer vaccines has led to reports in medical journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, and most recently in the Cancer Biotherapy and Radiopharmaceuticals journal.
“We are extremely encouraged by the long- term results experienced by many of these patients,” states Dr. Dillman. “This patient- specific, or personalized cancer vaccine approach appears to have contributed to their increased survival.”
For more about Hoag’s patient-specific melanoma vaccine clinical trial, please or call 949/7-CANCER (722-6237).